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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 31, 2001

Menlo firefighters home from New York for good Menlo firefighters home from New York for good (October 31, 2001)

Search teams recalled as salvage begins

by Pam Sturner

Heavy machinery has taken over for rescue workers at the World Trade Center in New York, meaning that members of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District's urban search-and-rescue team will not be returning for another tour of duty.

"It's all about tons per day now," said Capt. Harold Schapelhouman, Menlo Park's director of special operations and the leader for Task Force 3, the rescue team from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

When Task Force 3 left for New York Sept. 19, team leaders expected to make several trips back and forth in the following months. The Menlo Park unit returned for good Sept. 30 after a 12-day tour. The last of the urban search-and-rescue teams left New York Oct. 19.

Schapelhouman said the team is doing well overall since its stress debriefing Oct. 10, although the sorrow of the experience lingers with them.

Task Force 3 spent the first five days of duty filling in as New York City's search-and-rescue squad, most of which disappeared with firefighters killed in the World Trade Center collapse. Of the 343 firefighters lost there, about 176 belonged to the city's special operations command.

According to Schapelhouman, rebuilding the search-and-rescue unit became a priority -- not only to guard against further terrorist attacks, but also to handle building collapses, for which the New York Fire Department receives 500 calls a year.

The city's fire officials gave the assignment to Task Force 3 as one of the most experienced teams, Schapelhouman said. Operating from a secret location, its members created and staffed a rescue unit from scratch. During off hours, they also trained on a debris pile at the city's fire academy in Queens to keep their skills sharp.

On arriving at the Trade Center site, the team found their greatest challenge in helping the city's police and firefighters deal with their losses, Schapelhouman said.

"When one part of the family hurts, the whole family hurts," he said. "I had friends in there, and part of me wanted to just go and dig. But you must be disciplined. It's not about what you want; it's about what they need."

Unlike the Oklahoma City bombing of 1993, where recovery efforts caused rescue workers intense stress, the New York site contained far fewer reminders of life in the Trade Center before the disaster.

"It was a very sterile environment -- very different from Oklahoma," Schapelhouman said. "There was no furniture, no office items, no human remains."

Schapelhouman, who has returned to duty teaching search-and-rescue techniques to firefighters around the bay, said Task Force 3 received highest marks in the peer review of its performance in New York. Other teams plan to adopt a number of its practices, including its cultivation of engineers as full members of the team.

-- E-mail Pam Sturner at


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