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Terrorism And Urban Search And Rescue

Author: Nancy J. Rigg

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-11
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September 11, 2001: The Day The Rules Changed

Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue. 

On the morning of September 11th, Ray Lynch, one of six deputy directors of the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM) was in his office at 7 World Trade Center when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower.  The 110-story tower was less than 100-yards away from his desk.  “I didn’t know what hit the building,” Lynch recalled, “but I heard the crash and our whole building shook.”  Lynch looked out the window and saw a horrifying shower of debris plummeting to the ground.  “The entire side of the North Tower from about the 80th floor was engulfed in flames,” he said, “so we immediately activated our response plan to a high-rise fire and evacuated our building as a precaution.”

As Lynch and his staff relocated to street level, reports came in that a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, was heading towards the South Tower.  “I stood there looking up at it, frozen in time like in a slow-motion movie where you feel something bad is going to happen.  When they told me on the radio that the South Tower was going to collapse, I didn’t really believe it.” 

Even as the famous “twin towers” of the World Trade Center fell in a terrifying implosion of steel, glass, concrete dust, and human tragedy, American Airlines Flight 77 was rammed by another group of suicidal hijackers into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.  And although government officials quickly scrambled to close all airports and air space nationwide, United Airlines Flight 93, flying from Newark to San Francisco, mysteriously plummeted into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

“I’ve been in emergency response for 28-years and I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life,” Lynch said. 

Overhead view of the damage in the collapse zone and to collateral buildings.  The area was broken into several quadrants for the FEMA US&R Teams, which searched for void spaces and signs of life. 
Photo by Jim Marquis/CA OES

Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces Deployed

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sponsors 28 national urban search-and-rescue (US&R) task force teams, comprised of fire-rescue specialists, structural engineers, medical professionals, logistical and communications specialists, canine disaster search teams, and incident support managers, ready to serve as a national resource for disaster rescue response nationwide.  “As soon as it became obvious that we were facing a major terrorist event, we knew we were going to have structural collapse responses,” said Dave Webb, FEMA’s National Urban Search & Rescue Unit Chief.  “Right from the beginning we activated eight US&R task force teams for both the Pentagon and New York incidents.” 

Under ideal conditions, moving 62-70 US&R team members and a huge cache of equipment is a challenge.  Key to the success of this process is quickly activating Incident Support Teams (ISTs), whose members rapidly deploy to the scene and serve as liaisons with local first responders who are in charge of operations.  But with all commercial airports closed abruptly, getting IST personnel into position was a challenge. 

Battalion Chief Chase Sargent of Virginia Beach Fire and Rescue, which manages Virginia Task Force Two (VA-TF2) as well as one of the FEMA ISTs, was at Texas A&M University teaching a structural collapse course on the 11th when his pager went off.  “By the time the Pentagon had been hit and the fourth plane had gone down in Pennsylvania, FEMA activated all the ISTs and told us to report to New York City,” Sargent said.  He and two other US&R colleagues rented a vehicle and hit the road, arriving in New York 22 hours later on the 13th.  As they sped along the interstate, one highway patrol officer gave them a thumbs up and radioed, “What’s your warp speed now?”

“We had folks from Colorado who hitched a ride on a Red Cross flight that was moving blood plasma to New York,” Dave Webb said.  “We had folks who drove from Lincoln, Nebraska.  It was remarkable that people got on scene so quickly despite all of the limitations on travel.  By the night of the 11th, we had cores in place to provide the incident support team functions in Arlington and New York City.  It wasn’t pretty or as smooth as we hoped, but everyone did an outstanding job.”

During the next month, 26 of the 28 FEMA task force teams were activated, rotating into New York and Arlington to support local search and rescue operations.

Search & Rescue specialists from California Task Force-3 work the pile.  Photo via CA TF-3.


The Pentagon: Smooth US&R Response in a Jittery Nation’s Capital

The Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, which sponsors Maryland’s US&R task force (MD-TF1), and the Fairfax County Fire Department, which sponsors Virginia Task Force One (VA-TF1), responded immediately to the attack on the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, to assist with firefighting and rescue operations.  “Both Fairfax and Montgomery County initially responded to the Pentagon on mutual aid,” Dave Webb explained, “and after the disaster declaration they were federalized.”  Additional FEMA teams from Virginia (VA-TF2), Tennessee (TN-TF1), and New Mexico (NM-TF1) were also rotated into the Pentagon.

Assistant Chief Tom Carr, Task Force Leader for MD-TF1, praised the Arlington County Fire Department for its quick coordination of local emergency resources.  “Arlington County Fire was impressively well organized to handle this difficult situation,” Carr said.  “The first responders to any incident set the tone for the entire incident, and they did a wonderful job.  They had their hands full with fire, structural collapse, obvious rescues needing to be made, and the continuing threat of additional issues.”

The Pentagon, which was built during World War II with 435,000 cubic yards of concrete, is one of the world’s largest office buildings, housing more than 23,000 employees.  When Flight 77 tore a huge gash in the west side, four stories pancaked down on top of one another.  “That jet went right through the building, and it did a lot of damage,” Carr said, “but there was very little collateral structural collapse.  They had just finished retrofitting the area that was hit with blast-proof glass and all kinds of additional support, which really made a difference.” 

Although 64 passengers on the plane perished in the crash, and 125 Pentagon employees were killed or remain unaccounted for, Carr credits the construction of the Pentagon and the prompt emergency response by military, law enforcement, fire agencies, and “heroic civilians” for the relatively low death toll.  “If you can say anything ‘good’ about such a horrific event as this, as an incident it was extremely well run,” Carr said.  “We had all the right resources in place, from local agencies, to military personnel, to the FEMA US&R Task Force teams, who worked closely together to give everybody the maximum opportunity for survival and rapid rescue.” 

Although it is too soon to fully evaluate lessons learned, Carr added, “We will take time to reflect and make adjustments for future responses, because it’s critical to learn from every incident, no matter how well or how poorly the response went.”


New York: Facing Loss that is Unimaginable and Deeply Personal

The New York City Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management sponsors one of the 28 FEMA US&R Task Force Teams, New York Task Force One (NY-TF1), comprised of New York fire, police, and EMS personnel.  In a moment of tragic irony, more than 80% of their US&R rescue personnel, including the entire fire department command staff, perished when the WTC collapsed.

“My first thought when I watched news coverage of the buildings coming down was how many firefighters, paramedics, and police have we lost,” Chase Sargent mused.  “I had this sick feeling.  I lost seven close, sit-at-my-table, eat-with-my-family, personal friends, starting with Ray Downey, who was my mentor, my running partner, and a great friend.  I had a gut feeling that Ray was right in the middle of this.  Then the names started trickling in and I knew he had been lost.  These losses are both deeply personal and utterly beyond comprehension.”

With initial estimates of between 10-20,000 victims injured, deceased, or missing, New York emergency responders had no time to pause, let alone absorb the massive loss of their own comrades.  “The initial incident command was devastated, because of the collapse” Ray Lynch said, noting that in addition to Battalion Chief Ray Downey, who was in charge of FDNY US&R operations, BC Jack Fanning and BC John Paolillo, who were FDNY US&R task force leaders with NY-TF1, Fire Chief Peter Ganci, Jr., Deputy Commissioner William Feehan, and the department’s beloved chaplain, Father Mychal Judge, were among those who perished along with more than 300 firefighters and 100 NYPD and Port Authority personnel.  An estimated 4,500 civilian lives were lost, and there were countless people injured, but more than 25,000 people who were in the twin towers when the attack took place were evacuated, thanks to the rapid emergency response.

Despite the tremendous blow to FDNY’s command structure, the department “quickly regrouped,” Lynch said, “and they all did one hell of a job under the circumstances.  OEM never lost radio communications, thank goodness, and we were able to coordinate all the city’s agencies.  The fire department, police department, Port Authority and other agencies did a total recall of their staffing.  And FEMA mobilized their US&R teams quickly.  Within the first day we had FEMA US&R teams arriving into the Javits Convention Center.”

On the eve of their demobilization from New York, Washington Task Force-1 saluted the Fire Department of New York in a brief ceremony that honored the nation’s largest fire department for their loss of more than 300 firefighters.  Photo by Mike Rieger/FEMA.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Convergent Volunteers

Despite the rule that disasters are “invitation only” events, in addition to the federal, state, and local resources that were specifically asked to respond, there was a huge, spontaneous outpouring from emergency responders and other volunteers, including construction workers, who immediately converged on the World Trade Center, offering to help.  “The volunteers were incredible,” Ray Lynch said, “but they were also a big problem.  Most of them had good intentions and it’s hard to turn away a volunteer, especially if they’re firefighters from other towns in the area who show up with their equipment and personnel.  But it’s a dangerous situation.  You can end up with people getting hurt or losing their lives if they don’t have the right training.  We tried to stick to the FEMA teams and other US&R groups, including the New York Regional Response Team, but it was tough.”

Spontaneous deployments by both legitimate and “self-appointed” search and rescue teams, including several international teams that were specifically asked not to respond but who showed up anyway, was a headache that the FDNY and FEMA command staff did not need.  Chase Sargent said, “I was flipping through a magazine recently and I saw a profile of this guy and his dog.  He has no ‘job.’  He just goes from disaster to disaster.  He showed up one night in New York carrying a three-ring binder with newspaper articles about himself and he made exorbitant claims about what he could do.  I asked him who he was and who certified his dog.  ‘I did,’ he said.  I then asked if he had a FEMA Level 1 or Level 2 dog and he looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean?’  We asked the police department to escort him off the site.  He was a phony, but in that magazine they called him a ‘hero’.”

“No one wants to criticize legitimate volunteer rescuers,” Ray Lynch said, “but there are too many people out there who are opportunists.  All they’re doing is getting in front of a camera for self-promotion and getting in the way of real rescue operations.”

Comm Specialists Dave Tritch from Ohio TF-1 and Stan Horst from California TF-1 install the antenna for a portable repeater on a 24-story building 4 blocks north of Ground Zero.  The repeater enabled shared communications between all the US&R teams working on “The pile.”  Photo by Larry Hopkins/CA TF7


Communications: a Challenge in a World of Skyscrapers

Communications is one of the most essential, and yet complex and challenging, aspects of FEMA US&R Task Force deployment.  Capt. Kevin Nida, Communications Unit Leader for the Los Angeles City Fire Department’s US&R team (CA-TF1) summed it up this way: “We have to be prepared to operate in an unknown area for an unknown duration of time on unknown frequencies in unknown conditions and make it work.”

In New York City the base of operations (BoO) for all of the FEMA US&R teams was at the Javits Convention Center three miles from the WTC.  Stan Horst, Communications Specialist with CA-TF1, added wryly, “Due to the construction of the convention center, radio signals did not want to leave the building, so we had to install repeaters as well as radio remotes to establish communications between the disaster site and the BoO.”

With so many task forces deployed, “we realized that we didn’t need to have ten repeaters when we could all share them,” Horst said.  “So once we figured out what did and didn’t work, all the com specialists got together and set up five repeaters, with two teams sharing each repeater.  This worked really well.”

Whether US&R task force members are deployed or lend support from home base, teamwork is the key to a successful operation.  “Nowhere in the word ‘team’ is the letter ‘I’,” said Nida.  “We view every mission as something we’re going to accomplish by doing the best job we can as a team.”


Disaster Search Dogs: a Tremendous Asset

The collapse zone around the World Trade Center was, according to Ray Lynch, “something that has never been experienced before.  The scope of it, the size and acreage was enormous.  You could have put 4,000 rescuers on that pile and it wouldn’t have looked like you were doing anything.  The two structures had been 110 stories high and six levels deep, so it was a massive area to cover and search.”   Although there is an array of high-tech search equipment available for US&R search teams, including cameras and special listening devices, disaster search dog teams proved their worth at the Ground Zero.

Urban Search and Rescue teams work with their dogs to
uncover victims following the attack on the
World TradeCenter. Photo by Andrea Booher/ FEMA

Deresa Teller, a veteran paramedic with the Los Angeles City Fire Department, is a disaster search dog trainer and handler who serves on CA-TF1 with Bella, a nine-year old Border collie.  “I was impressed with how well Bella did on the rubble at the World Trade Center,” Teller said.  “This was some of the hardest and most dangerous rubble we’ve ever worked on.  We had to walk on big, iron girders, and in between them would be five, ten, and fifty-foot drops.”  In addition to having advanced disaster certification, Bella is also cadaver certified.  Sadly, the location of deceased victims at the WTC was her greatest contribution.  “One night we worked with the New York Fire Department, because they’d heard that Bella was good with cadaver,” Teller said.  “They had located fire apparatus, but they couldn’t find the remains of whoever was buried.”  Bella alerted quickly and the remains were recovered.

Some canine teams at the WTC seemed ill prepared to operate in such a dangerous environment with numerous hazards, including smoldering fires that occasionally erupted like flaming geysers, areas with toxic fumes, and acres of shredded steel, concrete dust, and glass.  In addition to the canine teams who served with the FEMA US&R task forces, Teller said, “a lot of the dogs that came were wilderness search dogs or police K9s and they had never worked in rubble like this.  Some of the dogs were flying over the rubble like gazelles and that was so dangerous,” Teller said. 

The work is painstaking and methodical, and not all dogs are up to the task.  Because search dogs tend to attract media attention, much was made of the dogs being “depressed” about not finding live victims to rescue and needing “booties” to protect their paws.  “Dogs that had never worked a situation like this and found it overwhelming may have gotten ‘depressed,’ because it was unusual and they weren’t prepared for it,” Teller said.  “But for the dogs that are trained in disaster, it was just like another training drill.”  She added that booties are not ordinarily used on disaster search dogs, because “the dogs can’t negotiate the rubble well.  We need stricter standards for the dogs that go on disaster deployments.” 

Tom Carr agrees that more needs to be done to maintain a talent pool of properly trained and certified disaster search dogs.  “The FEMA certified search canines are so highly trained and specialized, they require a lot of commitment by their trainers and handlers to maintain their proficiency,” Carr said.  “This is a serious national issue, keeping enough dogs disaster certified.”


Images in the Aftermath

Disaster veterans know the value of critical incident stress management to maintain emotional health and well-being.  “We learned this from Oklahoma City and developed a significant system to deal with this,” Tom Carr said.  “We want to take care of our people so that they can be prepared to do their jobs.”  But no matter how much emotional support is available, rescuers who served at the Pentagon and in New York know that vivid images will likely visit their dreams and interrupt even waking moments again and again over the next few months.

Dan Hudson of WA-TF1 has had one recurring dream since returning from New York.  “It’s night, smoke’s rising and filling the air, and the exterior walls of Tower Two are rising into the smoke,” he said.  “There’s lots of noise and bright lights shinning into the site and I keep seeing the FDNY guys lining the exterior of my vision, like a frame around the site, containing it, encompassing it.”

Michael Kurtz of PA-TF1 recalls the “magnitude of the damage.  Everything was gray and colorless.  We had every single emotion running through us at any given time during the day.  The massive amount of twisted, large steel girders sticks in my mind.  This was the biggest amount of devastation that any of the FEMA US&R teams have ever responded to.  You can’t even find a perspective on how terrible it was.”

Tim Gallagher, Director of Texas Task Force 1 (TX-TF1), worries that the US&R teams, as well as first responders from local police and fire-rescue agencies, who are the new “foot soldiers on the front lines of the war against terrorism” need to be better prepared to face shadow enemies that are willing to strike down innocent Americans with such deadly precision.  “The biggest chunk of concrete that I found at the World Trade center was the size of my fist,” Gallagher mused.  “There was nothing but dust.  All those human beings returned to dust.  Everybody in America has been hurt by this.”

Dave Webb shares Gallagher’s sense of urgency to train and equip all of the FEMA US&R task forces to respond to incidents involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as well as collapsed structures.  “It’s a different world that we now live in,” he said.  “We’ve never had the U.S. mainland attacked before and a lot of folks are doing some serious thinking about all these new issues, including how to prevent such tremendous losses among first responders in the future.  Everyone feels a lot of grief for the thousands of people who lost their lives at the Pentagon, in the plane crashes, and at the World Trade Center, but the situation in New York is personal.  One of our US&R task forces is at the bottom of that rubble pile.”

Nancy J. Rigg is a writer, filmmaker, and consultant with an extensive background in swiftwater rescue, public safety education, and disaster prepardeness.  She is a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.


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