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Palo Alto Weekly Online Edition

Uploaded: Monday, Sept. 17, 2001

Deployment near for Menlo firefighters

Oklahoma City veterans set jaws for grim experience

by Pam Sturner

As Division Chief Frank Fraone left to join the overhead management team at the site of the World Trade Center, the other 61 members of the Menlo Park fire district's urban search-and-rescue unit was on standby for deployment sometime this week.

On Friday, two flatbed semi trucks carried the team's 8-ton equipment cache to Travis Air Force Base, where military authorities were to inspect it before transport.

The state Office of Emergency Services has notified the team to expect deployment multiple times during the recovery effort, which they estimated would take six months rather than two, said Capt. Harold Schapelhouman, the director of special operations for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. The team expects to be deployed for about 10 days at a time. Officials at the scene estimate it could take as long as six months to completely go through all the World Trade Center wreckage.

Chief Mike Julihn and Schapelhouman said the collapse of additional buildings around the site had left them "extremely concerned" about the rescuers' safety.

According to Schapelhouman, engineers reviewed photographs of the collapses Monday and prepared to brief the rescue team about the nature of the disaster site.

Schapelhouman said the rescue teams will be watching the weather for rain, which would turn the dust to muck and could cause the wreckage to shift. A hurricane now headed for the East Coast could complicate the recovery work, he said.

He also noted that as time goes on, the rubble pile becomes more dangerous: the recovery work destabilizes the wreckage and increases risk to the participants.

A veteran of the rescue efforts after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Schapelhouman said that experience gained there has helped make current efforts safer. Based on what they learned in Oklahoma, urban search-and-rescue teams now know better how to exploit the knowledge of structural engineers and heavy equipment operators deployed to the scene.

Although the World Trade Center site presents a catastrophe on a vastly larger scale, Schapelhouman nonetheless anticipates certain parallels with Oklahoma City in the way operations unfold.

Typical days will probably involve about 12 hours of work; briefings, transportation into and out of the site, and meals accounting for much of the rest, Schapelhouman said. In Oklahoma City, the management group got two to three hours of sleep a day at most, and those working on the pile got five to six -- if they could sleep.

"What you see affects you, and we realize that's going to happen," Schapelhouman said. "Every day we will fight a battle to keep up the workers' morale and to keep them safe."

As in Oklahoma City, he anticipates that team members will struggle with the disappointment of not finding survivors. Noting that the rubble pile is extremely compacted, and that earthquake survival rates drop from 19 percent on the fourth day to 5 percent on the fifth day, he warned he has "no misconceptions" about the likelihood of finding people alive in the rubble.

However, like their counterparts in 1995, he expects that rescuers will have other roles to play.

"The team is not only there to bring back the victims. We're there to rescue the hopes and the spirit of New York City," he said, adding, "We are committed to bringing the last victim out and hopefully provide closure for the families."

Over the course of the rescue efforts Task Force 3's management team will rotate the 200 team members through the deployments and focus on keeping morale up, which Schapelhouman compared loosely to inspiring a sports team for an important game.

"They all want to go out. There's not a firefighter in America who doesn't want to help," he said.

Still, he has concerns about the fallout of the effort for the participants. Citing his own memories of gruesome scenes in Oklahoma City, he said, "You can't lose those thoughts. It's like going into battle."

Ben Marra, a captain in the Menlo Park fire district, agreed. Even without last week's terrorist attacks, he thinks about his experience in Oklahoma City nearly every day. "Something triggers it: concrete, dust, dirt while you're working in your back yard," Marra said.

Dealing with the after-effects nonetheless seems a small price to pay, Marra said. A native of New York City, he knows firefighters who are missing. "I just want to get out there and help. We've gotta help them; they're our family, our brothers and sisters, and they would do the same for us," he said.

For Schapelhouman, the impending mission also holds personal significance. Among the firefighters lost in New York was his colleague Ray Downey, a battalion chief of the Fire Department of New York and a fellow member of the committee that developed the national disaster response system used after the Oklahoma City bombing.

"We had just spoken recently about how of all the people who had been in the system 11 years ago, we were some of the only ones still there," Schapelhouman said. "He was a very dynamic leader. To lose a great person and a great friend -- it's hard."

 

 

 

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