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20 Years Later: Remembering Oklahoma City - The Communications Center Impact: USAR

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2015-04-19
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Part 4: Search & Rescue in Oklahoma City

Richard Wolfe, Division Chief, Phoenix Fire Dept./FEMA USAR AZ-TF1

Originally published in our Jul/Aug 1995 issue

The bombing of the Federal Building on Oklahoma City set into motion a tremendous emergency response, from the local public safety crews to federal emergency management personnel.  Because the search and rescue needs of the incident quickly overtasked local responders, Urban Search And Rescue (USAR) teams from across the nation were deployed to assist Oklahoma City Fire in what was a daunting search and rescue operation.  The first USAR team to arrive in Oklahoma City was that of the Phoenix, Arizona, Fire Department. 

On the morning of April 19, 1995, at approximately 08:35 AM, a phone call was received from FEMA placing the Urban Search and Rescue Team, Arizona Task Force 1 ( AZ-TF1), on  alert status due to an explosion at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Around 08:45 confirmation was given by FEMA that the Task Force was being activated to assist with rescue operations at the incident.

The mobilization plan that had been written over a year ago was put into action at the Emergency Services Institute.  Personnel were called to report in for transportation to the bombing site via military transport.  The cache of equipment that had been established by FEMA and procured by our Department was packed and readied for transportation to Luke Air Force Base, where it would be repacked by their loadmasters for aircraft configuration.

The Task Force is comprised of 62 persons, mostly members of the Phoenix Fire Department.  Their skills range from Technical Rescue Team members, to Hazardous Materials Technicians, Logisticians, professional engineers, doctors and paramedics, search dogs and their handlers, technicians for specialized equipment, and a staff of command officers to manage the operation.  We also included two very important additions to the team.  One was our department Chaplain Father Carl, who was there to prairie and debriefs our personnel while working in Oklahoma City.  The other was one of our Department's Public Information Officers, Phil Yeager.

AZ-TF1 arrived at Luke Air Force Base at 12:30 PM.  The members were given a briefing by the Air Force Personnel about our flight and the regulations that we were to abide by while in flight.  Around 3:30 PM, the members of our task force were taken to the flight line to board an Air Force C 141 cargo master for our flight to Tinker Air Force Base, just outside Oklahoma City.  The two hour flight gave TF1 personnel time to organize their thoughts, refresh themselves with the Field Operations Guidebook, and to rest a little before our arrival.

We landed at Tinker around 8:20 PM local time amidst a thunder storm with warnings of tornadoes in the area.  The Air Force had transportation waiting for us and were quickly unloading the pallets of equipment as our personnel loaded the buses for the trip to our billeting area near the blast site

Earlier in the day, several of our command officers flew from Phoenix to Oklahoma City to assess the situation and prepare a plan of action so that work could begin once we arrived.  Our billeting was at the offices of Southwest Bell, just two blocks from the Federal Building.  Upon arrival, our advance team met us and began to brief the command staff of conditions, job site considerations, and our action plan for that right.  Personnel were assigned to set up the sleeping area and gather personal gear while a logistics area was established and equipment unloaded.  At midnight, all personnel were gathered in the auditorium for a briefing by the command staff, as well as a prebriefing by Father Carl as to the conditions on site.  We wanted to let our people know from the beginning that this wasn’t an earthquake or a building collapse, but an explosion.  The void spaces we were used to working with weren’t going to be there.  No survivors had been found within the last four hours.  But that didn’t mean the team would work any less diligently.

Once the briefing was completed, our personnel split into their squads and went to the Logistics Unit to gather the equipment needed for the nights work.  This included such items as a Search Cam (a motorized video camera lens and speaker attached to a telescoping pole that can articulate 360 degrees in spaces that personnel cannot get into).  We also took along our own thermal imaging camera which would be able to spot the body heat signatures of anyone under the rubble.

We arrived on site around 1 AM on Thursday morning.  Our task was to go to the Second  Floor, which was the area of the day care center, and to begin search operations in that area.  We were also needed in what was termed the basement area to assist with search and shoring of the floor above.  Once our Technical personnel surveyed the floor for safe work conditions, our Search Team with its two search dogs and other related equipment went to work.  The rest of our members began the arduous task of removing debris and marking the areas where the dogs indicated that a signature had been located.  This continued throughout the night with our task force plus the addition of the Sacramento, California, Task Force (CA-TF7), which arrived some time after we did.

By 8 AM, most of our team was returned to quarters, with the exception of the search team, which had been assigned to search from the 9th (top) floor down.  The team worked with the dogs and cameras until noon, completing their task with no indications of any people left on these floors.

While the search team worked upstairs, the rest of us were asked to assist with the removal of concrete.  There was a support column located on the northwest side of the structure that had suffered damage and was of great concern to all on site, for this was the main support for what was left of the west end of the floors.  The construction people on the scene were prepared to build a steel support for the column, but a concrete planter with 45-degree sides was in the way.  The angled portion had to be removed to square out the planter and allow for a flat surface on which the bracing support could be placed.  Our Logistics section brought a Stanley concrete cutting chainsaw to the site and removed the section in question in a relatively short period of time.  We then finished the bracing once that task had been completed.

On Friday, our Task Force was split in half, with one group going to the south side to continue the work started on the Second Floor and the other group to the north side work the rubble pile.  Midway through the shift we were reassigned to work with the Oklahoma City Fire Department in the Water Resources Building across the street, which was also heavily damaged in the blast.  The crews worked a 12 hour shift, returning to quarters at 1 AM.  By then, six task forces had arrived on site, all working 12-hr. shifts.  Two teams would work from 7 AM till 7 PM, relieved by two more teams that worked from 7Pm until 7AM.  Our task force came on duty at 1 PM and worked till 1 AM.  We were relieved by Sacramento Fire, who worked  1 AM until 1 PM.

The working conditions changed regularly each day.  Safety was of paramount concern.  Later that day 2 more task forces arrived on the scene to assist with the rescue efforts.  Work stoppages were frequent due to high winds and rain causing debris to fall from the upper floors.  Those who worked the interior of the building were faced with dust and the cold from the winds outside.  Task Forces worked jointly with the local authorities in providing the technical expertise to keep the building at worksite as safe as possible.

On Sunday, we were again tasked with splitting our team with one group completing their work on the Water Resource Building and the other group with clearing floors 8 and 9 of the overhanging debris.  Here crew members had to use their rope and knot tying expertise to set up safe lines and back-up lines for personnel to work safely on the edges of the floor.  When the debris was removed and the floor secured, these crews were reassigned back to the second floor to work the rubble pile that extended to the street.  Members needed to secure jack hammers, cutting torches and other equipment to break apart large amounts of concrete in order to reach victims that search dogs had indicated were there.  Two teams of Oklahoma City Fire members were assigned up our group, assisting in the construction of a debris chute to aid in the removal of the debris from the front of the building.  However, after a short while , this was stopped.  It had become too unsafe to work with the large concrete slabs that hung overhead and a plan was put into action to allow constructions teams at the site to remove them for all of our safety,

It had been determined earlier that day the AZ-TF1 would be demobilized at 1 AM Monday morning to prepare for the return home later that day.  Since it was 8:30 PM when stoppage occurred, and it would take up to 4 hours to remove the necessary debris, it was decided to relieve our crews then, allowing them to prepare to demobilize.

At 9:30 PM, we returned to our quarters where we were greeted by Southwest Bell personnel, whose offices had been our sleeping quarters for the past several days.  These gracious people took the time and effort to put together a dinner in our honor as we returned from work.  They felt that they couldn't do enough for us to say thanks for our assistance, but it was we who were thankful to them for caring for us, looking after our welfare, and making us feel that even though we were a long way from home, we had an adopted one.

What AZ-TFl did at Oklahoma City wasn't any different than the type of services provided to the citizens of Phoenix on a daily basis.  The site was more compact and devastating than what we typically see at home, but job performance is what we train for and that is what we delivered.  The emotional impact of the work was really no different than any other search and rescue operation, despite the enormity of the devastation and the unfortunate number of casualties.    The most unusual factor for us was working several 12-hour shifts on a single incident, rather than packing up and being released after a few hours’ work.

In 1995 Richard Wolfe was a Division Chief in the Special Operations Division of the Phoenix Fire Department.  This report was provided via Phoenix Fire Department's after-action report on the deployment of AZ-TF1 to Oklahoma City.

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