Rescue Operations: Doing Battle with the Building
BY MIKE SHANNON
For me, the incident began five blocks away in my boss`s office. We were discussing budgets for rescue units when the blast occurred. I immediately left the office to drive to the incident site. Smoke, visible from the alley behind Fire Headquarters, indicated the general direction. I stopped at the corner of 5th and Hudson, approximately in front of the Regency Tower Apartments, and walked to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
On entering the building, I noted several problems in addition to the injured and the overall extent of the damage. As OCFD special operations chief, I knew my involvement here would take me in several directions. Two stood out immediately: securing the building–that is, maintaining structural integrity for rescuer safety–and rescuing and recovering the building occupants who were trapped in the collapse. Like the “chicken-or-the-egg” dilemma, it was difficult to say at that point which would come first, rescuing victims or looking for secondary-collapse possibilities. One cannot be separated from the other, which may sound basic; but actually doing both was extremely difficult. I forced myself to fight against my first instinct, which was to deal with the people, and began to survey the structure. I began scribbling on a pad the most hazardous locations as I observed them.
As a hazardous-materials instructor, I try to keep to a basic concept of problem solving. As I see it, there are three elements of problem solving in mounting an emergency response with the greatest margin of safety: hazard, a danger or perceived danger; risk, the exposure to that danger or perceived danger; and protection, the insulation to the hazard to affect the risk. My exposure to that known or perceived danger poses a risk for me. The questions to be asked and answered are, What results might my exposure have? Does my exposure to that hazard present an acceptable risk? If it does not, then I must place one or multiple layers of protection between the hazard and me. The protection may be distance, time, clothing, or barriers–whatever must be done.
In a nutshell, standing there in the Murrah Building, I employed this method to identify the hazards in front of me, assess the risk they posed, and then develop some form of protection methods.
SIZE-UP AND RECONNAISSANCE
Smoke from the car fires across the street was coming into the building. It was hampering vision more than creating breathing problems–it made the building dark. Darkness probably was the greatest hazard for the first 45 minutes or so of the incident because you couldn`t see and easily could trip and fall in the glass, concrete, office furnishings, and rebar piled high everywhere.
I spoke with people who were still inside the building–but able to help themselves–and learned that a day-care center with some 25 children had occupied part of the second floor. My children were in a day-care center at that very moment, so learning this was a distraction. One thought was for the children, the other for the welfare of the rescuers and the condition of the building.
The first thought drove me to the second floor. I looked for the elevators, believing the stairs to the second floor would be close by. When I got there, I began to conduct a primary search and inspection. Before I could do much searching, debris from the bottom of a third-floor beam fell on me, staggering me, almost knocking me down. I looked up and could see severe damage to this beam, running north-to-south along what I would later identify as Column Line 20, between E and F. I became concerned about a secondary collapse. My responsibility was now skyrocketing; would-be rescuers were entering the building on their own. It seemed to me that everyone in the country was coming to the building.
When I first entered the building, I found signs of shrapnel in all but the shielded areas, which led me to believe that much of the lower levels were affected by the blast and that damage on the upper levels came from the destruction and loss of the lower columns. The building quit collapsing because it “stabilized” itself.
My consuming thought in the first 24 hours was to accomplish whatever rescues were possible while shoring the lower beams, especially the area across Columns F20 and F22 in the first- to second-floor area, and to avoid disturbing the structure while removing only as much debris as possible to meet our rescue objectives. Columns F20 and F22 were a critical concern because the adjacent Column F24 had completely collapsed and F20-22 had no lateral support at least up to the third floor.
During the first phase of operations, it was essential to keep the structure in its current position. Again, the building had stabilized itself when it stopped collapsing, and we had to make sure no major structure elements were moved and the building`s load did not change. A load change easily could happen by introducing a new load of rescuers who would be moving abruptly from point to point while vigorously looking for more live victims. Just the thought of the potential consequences of this live shock load sent a chill down my back. We had to get the unorganized would-be rescuers–hundreds of them–out of the building, which was difficult because they all had an extreme desire to help. They wanted to help their neighbors. The fire service wanted to do its job. The civilian rescuers were willing to accept a risk they really didn`t know but which the fire department found unacceptable.
During the first moments, I witnessed more chaos and confusion than I had ever witnessed–none of my many previous deployments even came close to this one. Absolute unrestrained panic was rampant in the building during the first hour to hour-and-a-half of the incident. The building had so many access points that it was very difficult to keep anyone from entering. I realized this and consulted District Chief Jim Conners, the first rescue commander and my immediate superior, and told him we needed to get control of the building, which was being subjected to a substantial shock load. He understood and was trying, but it was like trying to stop an ocean tide. The Oklahoma City Police Department (OCPD) early on implemented site-control measures; its officers had established perimeter control around a four-block area, but securing the Murrah Building itself was an entirely different matter. Many OCPD officers themselves were engaged in the search and rescue activities.
I was struck by more concrete pieces while on the second floor by the edge of what would later be called “the Pit.” I continued with my assessment of the building`s condition and witnessed the floor`s vibrating in response to rescuers` activities on the third floor. I turned again to try to access the west stairs–it was, contrary to my initial belief, stable and passable–and saw Firefighter Danny Atchley (OCFD`s photographer) searching the day-care area and removing children. You couldn`t help but notice him. He was throwing debris so fiercely you couldn`t even get close. Atchley removed three babies that day. None survived.
At this point, we were not able to organize our personnel, scattered over and under the rubble in many locations, working desperately.
I went up to the third floor. I found two women, Patti Hall and Nancy Ingram, both entrapped. Hall appeared to be hurt more seriously, but the extent of her entrapment was less and she would be removed relatively quickly (she would survive the incident). I worked with some of the civilian rescuers to try to keep them from moving Ingram while trying to extricate her; soon firefighters arrived to handle this extrication. (See article on page 94.)
I walked over to where the floor was missing, where it fell away to form the Pit. I again tried to get civilian volunteers to leave the building and to stop running and jumping into the Pit. From my location on the third floor behind Column F18, I spotted a man at the third-floor level, at the very top of the “Christmas Tree.” He was severely hurt; just under him was a deceased victim. I climbed out on the pile with the man and started removing the debris entrapping him. I needed help.
The radio traffic was so heavy I couldn`t get out, so I resorted to yelling to some firefighters on the ground. It was then that I noticed the crater at ground level. It was evident to me, from my military experience, that such a violent depression could only have been caused by a bomb. I saw Conners below and hand-signaled that I needed an aerial ladder. (We had placed three aerial apparatus in operation very quickly: a 100-foot aerial ladder flanked to the west by a 95-foot tower ladder and to the east by a 135-foot aerial ladder.) I turned around and went back to the man, not knowing if Conners had understood me. A few minutes later, an aerial ladder tip brushed my left arm. A truck company crew came up, placed the man in a stokes basket, and moved him down to the street. I descended to the street in the ladder and reentered the building. I vowed never to get stuck in a spot like that again–a spot in which I couldn`t do my job. While I was stuck up there, I could only focus on one man. I wasn`t performing size-up or looking after the safety of the building occupants and rescuers.
I was now on the ground floor that led to the Pit area. I found Nichols Hills (OK) Fire Chief Keith Byrant and some of his people working on a live trapped victim, Daina Bradley. He explained to me the seriousness of her entrapment: Her leg was under a massive beam that had collapsed between Columns E20 and F20.
It was just past 10 a.m. As far as I could determine from my building reconnaissance and from speaking with firefighters working the area, we had three live victims still trapped in the building: Nancy on the third floor; Daina on the first floor; and Amy just north of Daina, also on the first floor. All three were being attended to by personnel.
I was aware that we had removed many live victims from the building by this time, despite the lack of organization and danger to all involved. Generally, these were accomplished without sophisticated rescue technology–hand tools, muscle, and grit were in most cases the tools of necessity. Victims were pulled out of the lowest areas of the building and picked off the highest by aerial devices. Water was a concern down low, where water from broken plumbing began to dam up in the debris around some of the victims; generally, this was quickly addressed by moving the debris so the water would drain out, and, despite reports to the contrary, no victim was in real danger of drowning. One woman from the eighth floor had been blown backward across her office and, as the rest of the office collapsed around her, she remained perched on a tiny ledge–one step forward would have resulted in her demise, but she stayed and was recovered via aerial ladder.
The force of the explosion manifested itself many, many times over the course of the incident: People were blown 50 feet through as many as six masonry block partition walls; body parts were strewn throughout the debris; victims were impaled on file cabinets and by flying rebar; bodies literally were shredded–horrible effects of an outrageous cowardly act. But it was our duty to find the living and reclaim the dead–and ensure to the best of our ability that our personnel did not make the ultimate sacrifice doing it. And it would take 16 days to do it.
As if there weren`t enough to think about, an order came over the radio: “Everyone out! There`s another bomb!”
I was on the stairs returning to the first floor when I heard the warning. I immediately returned to the crews on the third floor–very close to the north face above the Christmas Tree–to see how close they were to extricating Nancy. A nurse was with them trying to start an IV. She had no protective clothing, such as a helmet or the like. I removed my helmet and held it on her head. I looked over to another firefighter who was doing the same for another civilian rescuer. The crews said they were very close to getting the victim out. I stressed the need for them to move as quickly as possible.
I left them and went to the first floor, remembering my friend Bryant and his Nichols Hills people. It appeared that extricating Daina would require an extended operation, but Bryant and his crew did not want to leave the victim alone. Although moved by their professionalism and willingness to stay, we were not going to take such a risk. I told him to gather his people and move to safety.
As they reluctantly vacated the hole and withdrew, his words haunted me: “The lady is going to be by herself.” If she were my wife, I would not have wanted her to be left alone. So I did what any firefighter would have done. I climbed into the hole and got her attention. She was begging us not to leave. My third-generation firefighter instincts surfaced: I wanted to stay, but I also knew my duty. I took off my helmet and asked the Lord to be there, for He knew infinitely better than anyone here what to do. I couldn`t help but wonder, “Would any of us be allowed to meet Him today? “
What was a supervisor to do? Can you allow your people to stay and be subjected to the risk of a secondary collapse that would occur if another bomb went off in an already-bombed-out building? Or, do you make them leave? I looked up through the very heavy debris to my right. It was Bryant reminding me in his best fire chief voice the exact words I had used on him just minutes earlier. I looked up and saw Atchley, whom I had not seen since he was working in the day-care area earlier. He said to me, “You have to go; you can`t tell everyone to leave and then you stay.” I told Daina we had to go and promised that we would be back with some better tools and equipment. I climbed out of the Pit and was walking shoulder to shoulder with Atchley down the dark hall when he said, “We need to stay in fellowship today with God because it could be over very quickly.” He meant for us working in the building. You really tried not to hear the cries for help, begging us not to leave, coming from behind us.
People were running everywhere. Atchley and I stayed a little longer, trying to make sure everyone was out. It then was reported to me that “the third-floor lady [Nancy Ingram] is out.”
I recount these few stories here to try to convey the condition of the Murrah Building and the spirit that permeated it. Some of the things I witnessed during the first hours of the incident were predicated on the duty we felt toward the people we serve–not on what we were being prompted to do in our hearts. Duty had to override emotion in an operation such as this.
The first bomb scare, at approximately 10:30 a.m., gave us an opportunity to get control of the incident, and we did.
By the time of the personnel evacuation, we had accomplished the following:
extinguished the car fires;
completed a primary search of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, Athenian, and Journal Record buildings;
surveyed the Murrah Building and assisted/removed/treated all the walking wounded;
extricated all known live victims except two;
established triage and treatment areas; and
completed transporting all known victims (except the two still known to be in the Murrah Building) to area hospitals.
The command post was moved to 8th and Harvey and fire department vehicles moved to a staging area established on 11th and Harvey. At the command post area, I was contacted by Assistant Chief Jon Hansen, my workday boss. He had not yet taken over the position of public information officer. He assigned me as rescue operations chief in the Murrah Building and instructed me to prepare my people to reenter the building as soon as the bomb scare was declared to be concluded.
I started to collect all the special operations people from the OCFD and mutual-aid departments and placed them in three groups, or task forces: High Angle, Haz-Mat, and Confined Space/Trench Rescue. Rope people would work in the areas above the third floor, the Haz-Mat group would be placed on the second and third floors, and Confined Space/Trench personnel would work in voids and under slabs from ground level. I later wished that I had kept these skilled people together, for during the second day, operational assignments changed. The Confined Space/Trench teams in particular proved very effective in the voids and cove areas, which required members who were not claustrophobic and who understood the principles of shoring.
The people who had been with Daina prior to the bomb-scare evacuation reported that it looked as if her leg would have to be amputated so she could be removed from her entrapment. They searched for a surgeon to perform the amputation. A surgeon, Dr. Andrew Sullivan, arrived at the command post. We discussed the objectives with him and determined the equipment and supplies he would need. He was presented to me in the following manner: “Here`s the doctor who is going to get the lady with the trapped leg out. He needs some equipment.” I gave him a rescue helmet with a light affixed to it and briefed him on some of the dangers to which he would be exposed. He then informed us that he was “good luck.” Several firefighters escorted him and his medical tools to Daina.
We returned to the Murrah Building shortly after 11 a.m. At this time law enforcement personnel established building security measures–a critical issue if we were to continue this operation in an organized, controllable fashion.
Organization was key. The Murrah Building complex–including the main building, extension areas, parking areas, etc.–presented 320,000 square feet to be searched. More than 260,000 square feet were left standing. About 55,000 square feet of building had collapsed into a relatively tiny 7,000-square-foot area–this would have to be a well-coordinated effort if we were to be effective.
The search and rescue task forces consisted of between 12 and 20 firefighters, split up into four-member crews and assigned to specific locations as directed by the task force leaders. We had a large manpower pool (75 firefighters on standby) even at these early stages of the incident and could assemble additional or backup teams within seconds if required.
The Confined Space/Trench group entered at ground level and worked its way to the Pit–the two-story collapse approximately half the building deep and three columns across. They found an access point at which they could begin digging, removing debris, and tunneling in their search for live victims.
Second- and third-floor teams moved to their positions via the interior stairs and searched through the vast rubble of broken furniture, concrete and steel, and personal belongings. On the second floor, this rubble included remnants of what had been the day-care center. These crews also performed limited searches in voids at the edge of the Christmas Tree across Columns F12, 14, 16, and 18.
Upper-floor teams also reached their destinations via interior stairs, moving from floor to floor in their primary searches. Any work at fractured edges of the building required that these firefighters tie off to a substantial object.
Meanwhile, teams were successful in extricating Amy. She was quickly loaded into an ambulance at the scene and transported to a hospital. Daina was the only identified live victim known to be in the building at this time.
We had not been back to work very long when another bomb threat evacuation was ordered. We were getting a little tired of this start-stop routine. So we went over to look at the “bomb,” which turned out to be a shoulder-carried missile that was still in its wooden box, as shipped. (With federal law enforcement agencies occupying parts of the building, it was not unusual to find weapons, etc. in the debris.) There wasn`t much to it. Most personnel vacated the building and went only across the street to the post office, awaiting the all-clear. We were out of the building for only a few minutes. The crew working on Daina remained in operation–they were not about to leave her.
This second evacuation, though brief, gave us another opportunity at refining site control and operational organization. We did an even better job of it this time. We realized, in our discussions outside the building, that we had to reevaluate the structure and assess the risks to the many authorized personnel within the building should a secondary collapse occur. Our hazard-reduction plan in part called for controlling the movement of personnel within the building so that one team would not accidentally jeopardize the position of another–for example, so that search on an upper floor would not rain debris on firefighters working below. We rebriefed all operations personnel on the hazards inside the building as we knew them. We directed personnel to wear Latex gloves under their leather firefighter gloves and use respirator masks. Concrete dust was a known hazard; bloodborne pathogens and other biohazards were question marks that demanded precautionary measures. Gross decon stations were set up. Body removers wore Tyvek® suits.
DAY ONE, AFTERNOON AND EVENING
After the second bomb scare evacuation, we resumed our primary searches unimpeded throughout the afternoon and into the night. In addition to focusing on the main structure, we searched the other areas of the building. The parking garage yielded no victims. In fact, there was very little damage in this area–the vehicles in the lot, except for a cover of concrete dust, were as they had been before the explosion. The one-story office area attached to the main building (called by some the “east side basement,” as sections of the first floor in some areas were belowgrade) had sustained massive destruction. Crews identified several dead bodies and recovered some from that location. Throughout this operation, firefighters were able to see and even touch the dead but were unable to recover them until much later.
By 2 p.m., Daina`s leg had been amputated, and she was transported to the hospital. She would survive.
All the dead on the third to the ninth floors were removed by the afternoon. No live victims were found on the upper floors.
Meanwhile, primary search on the second and third floors was producing only dead victim finds.
On the first floor, crews were hard at work tunneling through the Pit. They cleared debris, passing it out by hand or in five-gallon buckets. They shored quickly as they went. Hydraulic power spreaders and cutters were called in, but they proved ineffective in moving heavy structural debris in tight conditions. Sledgehammers, pry bars, and brute force were used to clear what needed to be cleared. Eventually, these crews cleared an area that would be called “the Cave,” a roughly 25-foot-long by 15-foot-wide area under the Pit, with a height in many locations of three feet or less. Firefighters found many dead victims in this location–the Cave and the Pit would give up some 70 victims over the course of the incident.
People on the second and third floors often moved to the eastern fringes of the collapse to look at the Pit, causing debris to fall. I ordered that no one was to pass Column Line 18. We would change this to Column Line 16 the following day.
After a few hours in the building on Day One, we realized, from the state of the building and the entrapped victims, that chances for live rescues would be slim. Opportunities for making live rescues were slipping away as the hours passed. All but one of the victims found alive were discovered by 10 a.m. We who had been in the building since the inception of the incident and had seen the destruction faced a reality in our heart of hearts that we wouldn`t find any more live ones. Still, we hoped: We were committed to rescue mode; this was a search for live victims. So we were surprised and cheered when we found Brandi Liggons in the Cave that evening. Her rescue team(s) worked for more than three hours to extricate her. (See box on page 80.)
After more than 12 hours of assessing and reassessing the building, I was not overly concerned with a secondary collapse because we were trying not to move heavy debris, particularly around the columns. We also had reduced the number of rescuers under and over the debris. This decreased the amount of falling debris and the potential for someone`s being struck by it. That night we began shoring the third-floor beam across Columns E20 and F20, midway through the Pit. We constructed approximately 20 vertical pipe shores in this location.
But the hazards were still there. Bad cracks were everywhere. I felt we were working and walking around in a glass house. It seemed to start to settle down about 8 p.m. We may have just been getting used to our new home.
By 10 p.m., we had conducted primary, secondary, and canine searches.
As the night went on, teams were rotated in and out of the Murrah Building. Finding teams that could and would work in such a confined, risky, dark, odor-rich, visually stimulating space became a challenge. It was not for everyone–and, in truth, some firefighters refused. The few teams that worked in the Cave and void areas were made up of some of the most impressive people I have ever met. Working in these small areas was difficult, yet these teams worked hour after hour. They would remove a body, take a break, and then come back to work; some became very good at their newly acquired skills. The learning curve was moving up fast now. These rescuers were assigned in teams of four and got breaks every two hours. I designated these teams on my roster by the name of the team leader. The teams distinguished themselves under most difficult circumstances. They felt they could find another live victim, and that kept them doing their duty. The night passed with team after team passing through. The shoring during this initial period may not have been the classic jobs that would follow in the days to come, but rescuers did not mind working under these shores.
Members of FEMA`s USAR Incident Support Team (IST) arrived during the night and made preparations for a joint rescue effort. Two USAR Task Forces were on the way. Work with them began early the next morning.
By about 6 a.m. on Day Two, we could say with 99 percent accuracy that the objectives of controlling the site, sizing up the building, removing the walking wounded and surface victims, and conducting a good primary search of the upper floors and surrounding buildings had been accomplished. We knew the only victims left were in the piles of collapse rubble.
The weather was becoming a factor. The forecast called for rain. The weather was another load factor we took very seriously, given the condition of the building. In Oklahoma, the weather can change rapidly. Corporal Clint Greenwood, OCFD science officer and haz-mat team member, set up the equipment he needed to stay on top of approaching weather patterns. This equipment included Doppler technology from which, for example, he could pinpoint the location of any rotation (early stages of tornado) from miles away with an accuracy of three feet. During the first four days of the operation, we had plenty of weather problems (mostly at night). Rotation did in fact hit the ground three miles away–the closest it would come. We also had some lightning close by, but none struck the building or equipment. The nights on those first days brought winds up to 50 mph, heavy rains, wind chill factors as low as 32°F, and even some horizontal hail. Operations received weather updates every 15 minutes and a full report every hour, for the duration of the incident.
Day Two was filled with concerns about the building`s stability. Names were being formulated for different parts of the building, those that had the greatest potential for structural failure and secondary collapses. These areas received names like “Christmas Tree,” “the Bowl,” “East Area Floors,” “the Pile,” the “Mother Slab” (or simply “Mother”), and “Australia” because they were under constant observation. We began to scrutinize these areas in detail, beginning on Day Two.
I took Ray Downey, rescue operations chief of the City of New York (NY) Fire Department and FEMA IST operations chief, through the building. I showed him what had been done, offering my interpretation of the building collapse, as I had been in contact with it now for a day.
Our primary goal was to move every rock in the building that would not cause a structural problem and to look for victims. We “checkerboarded” the 266,000 square feet of floors that hadn`t collapsed, creating a grid pattern from which we could make a final search of these areas, to make absolutely certain no one had been overlooked.
Our operational plan was simple:
1. Stabilize an area.
2. Remove overhead hazards.
3. Remove light surface debris by hand, using limited manpower.
4. Move the cranes in to make picks of heavy debris.
5. Bring in heavy manpower for intensive rubble, void search.
These basic steps carried through the entire operation. It allowed us to move systematically and with the greatest margin of personnel safety.
Stabilization began at Column G12, which basically was the anchor to the whole west side of the remaining structure. Debris in this area went from street level to the third floor. This column revealed several structural cracks. It had to be secured before we could allow additional searching in the day care area. The structural engineers worked with on-site private contractors and heavy equipment operators to place two large pipe supports on both sides of the column. Stabilization would continue west to east–from most secure to least secure.
With the help of the city`s electric utility transport (OG&E`s Gary Gardner, in particular), we restored power to one of the building`s elevators, which were on the south side of the building and not totally damaged. We carefully determined–by placing engineers at key locations with measuring instruments and running the elevator up and down several times–that its vibrations would not affect stability. We used this elevator to transport manpower. We also asked a private contractor to assemble an outside elevator car (manlift) to move personnel to and from upper floors. It would also be used to transport light debris to the street.
The morning of Day Two was spent working extensively with engineers on “triaging” the building–looking for all indications of structural problems. In the afternoon, we concentrated on five areas/objectives:
1. Shore Column G12.
2. Remove fall hazards on upper floors between Columns G12 and F12. Many, many pieces or slabs of concrete hung down on rebar threads. Personnel would give them the endearing name “widow makers.” (If the widow makers were on a slab being moved by heavy equipment, they were called “hitchhikers.”)
3. Begin shoring the first floor between Columns F18 and E18 and between Columns F16 and E16 (the start of “The Forest”). A large supply of lumber was brought to the site for this purpose.
4. Begin large horizontal shoring for the unstable Columns F22 and F20. This would be done with steel pipes, several inches in diameter; they would be cut on-site to the proper length (some more than 35 feet), carried in by firefighters, and secured to the columns by contractors, under the direct supervision of engineers.
5. Remove the debris from and search the Pit. This operation was commanded by Santa Monica (CA) Fire Department Battalion Chief Jim Hone, a member of the IST, who was designated interior operations chief.
These operations on Days Two and Three were performed predominantly by USAR task force personnel.
On Day Two, the second floor fell three inches. [Editor`s note: Several outside reports tell of extensive floor sagging, crack widening, and floors pulling away from floors throughout the incident. This is not true. It is true that debris at times fell from upper to lower portions of the structure/collapse, that the second floor fell three inches, that debris shifted due to firefighter activity, and that slight building deflection occurred from overnight winds. It is also true that secondary collapse was a safety issue throughout the incident. Extraordinary measures were taken to increase stability. Critical structural elements were monitored constantly with Smart Levels® and theodolites and by visual observation by experienced personnel. We cordoned off all floors at Column 16, north to south; access was denied to all points east of that line. No heavy debris removal would be conducted this day–not until the street could be cleared and our shoring efforts were well underway.
We continued with the five objectives/ areas we had established on Day Two. Hone continued his debris removal and search in the Pit and was uncovering bodies. Horizontal bracing in that area was well on its way to completion. These would be constantly monitored and measured throughout the incident. Shoring of Column Lines 18 and 16 was moving along and extended to the second and third floors. Most of the fall hazards and floor cleaning along and west of G12 and F12 were completed, and teams were undertaking this same function along the north edge of the collapse, between F18 and F12. (Removal of overhead hazards constituted a major operational undertaking; we estimate that approximately three days were spent removing these hazards.) The shoring on G12 was completed by 3 p.m. Construction of the manlift began at that time.
Downey and I made trips to these locations continually and did so until the hazards of each area had been addressed. Even then, we readdressed those same points and checked on their stability in a continual watch.
Two problems began to surface at this stage of the incident. First was the issue of manpower. Between OCFD and FEMA Task Forces, we had a sizable force to attack the building. However, given the relatively small collapse area and the even smaller area in which we could safely operate at this time, we could devote only a minimal number of available firefighters to the search function. Trying to find work for personnel became a challenge and a point of frustration for many.
The second issue was safety. As different engineers came together to discuss structural stability and the methods being used to achieve it, opinion would change. One engineer would declare a certain area safe or unsafe and pass that information from USAR to IST, which would then give the opposite opinion. An engineer fearing for the teams` safety would drive the teams in and out and try to change the operational methods. The teams began to get frustrated. This problem was compounded as shifts changed (a safe area became unsafe and vice versa). It seemed as if we were taking five steps forward and two or three backward. Some progress was being made, but it was very frustrating nevertheless.
An example was the “Mother Slab.” The constant trouble it presented resulted in its name being changed to “the Slab from Hell.” Downey and I, after inspecting it on Day Two, believed it had plenty of steel for support. Since we couldn`t reach it by crane, we thought about possibly strapping it to the south wall column of 22. The engineers opposed this action.
Mother came up again on Day Three. Conners, the rescue commander, requested further inspection of the problem. Hone and I got to the ninth floor and surveyed the slab. We moved some office debris (it felt good to do some physical work) to get a better look. Downey and Mark Ghilarducci, IST team leader, arrived, and we all gave it a very close look. The meeting went on for some time, and we all made suggestions.
This was by no means the end of Mother. As each task force saw the building, each engineer noted the Slab from Hell as a hazard. But the engineers could not come to a consensus as to what should be done. But I do know the men from Allied Construction were not uncomfortable with it, and they`re well experienced in this area. Many hours were spent on this slab: discussing, rehashing, reexamining; we were becoming experts in the matter. Others saw it for a few days and went away; we became intimate with it. At any rate, we had planted the seeds for the engineering process of strapping it.
We made a “tactical” error very early in this incident–one of those lessons learned. We were running our incident via the engineers, which made it sporadic, disjointed. We had to stop, regroup, and focus again on the direction we were taking. Our objectives and the engineering reports would be one of those action methods required to continue the objective. The problem finally would be put to rest on Day Five.
With G12 secure and widow makers removed, we committed considerable manpower to debris removal and search of the westernmost section of the Pile, from the front to the Christmas Tree, between G12 and F12. Hone and his crews continued the heavy work in the Pit. More and more bodies were coming from this area. Additional shoring was erected on the first floor, columns 18 to 16–now it really looked like a forest. And we continued removing the fall hazards along F18, 16, and 14.
Several crews entered the east-side “basement.” This area was very hard-hit, and there were many difficult entombments. Eight to 10 bodies were recovered from this location.
By the end of the day, the body count was up to 78.
Up to this point, the fire department had rotated through several rescue commanders and FEMA had several engineers and several task forces–in short, a lot of people doing a lot of different things that were not very consistent or standardized. Oklahoma City Chief Gary Marrs was beginning to feel this, too. Late on Day Four, the chief was making one of his many stops during the day to see how things were going, and he didn`t like the progress. Just before midnight he called a meeting of command-level personnel and engineers to set things straight. He announced that the constant changing of the operational plan would stop. He made it quite clear that he was in charge and set some simple ground rules: Anything that had to do with the building, in both a technical way or in the way of rescue or recovery, would go through me. Anything of a more global operational nature, such as policy, would go through Rescue Command. A lead engineer, who would speak for all the engineers after a consensus was reached, would be designated. And he wanted a plan for dealing with the Mother Slab by 7 a.m. the following morning. He asked if there were any questions. There were none.
I arrived about 5:30 a.m., parked in my usual place, and walked in. Everyone in Rescue Command was gone. Even the IST Command was empty. I got nervous. Operations were at a standstill. Where was everyone? I walked out front. Everyone was outside across the street. People yelled at me to come over. I went over and was told they were cutting down the Mother Slab with a cutting torch. I said, “They`re WHAT?” By this time, they had a team on the ninth floor with a cutting torch rigged up to reach out and cut it loose. I asked Downey, “What are they doing?” He said he didn`t know–this operation already was in progress when he arrived. He said they had one more piece of rebar to cut, and it would come down. I did not like the idea of 35,000 pounds of slab falling to the Bowl and who knows where from there. To put this in perspective, the wrecking ball we had on-site weighed 3,500 pounds.
I told Downey if the slab didn`t fall after this cut, stop the activity. The rebar was cut, and Mother swung to the west, hitting Column F22, then pendulumed back–and then stopped. Downey radioed the team to stop the action. We all had a long talk over the Mother Slab again.
We decided to call in a demolition expert from Tulsa–thinking we might be able to blow off small pieces of it and solve the problem. The demolitions expert arrived and evaluated it. He suggested that we “strap it to the south wall and leave it alone.” Downey and I only looked at each other, eyebrows raised.
Meanwhile, the Pit was going well. Hone was really moving the debris. The night shift with Jim Lambert, engineer for OCFD Special Operations, came up with the idea of removing the “South Side Wall” (the wall of the Pit that used to be the second floor, which fell at a 45-degree angle) and opening up a passageway through the wall between the garage and west wall of the main building so as to bring the Bobcats® (mini front-end loaders) into the Pit. This eliminated considerable hand-hauling of debris and greatly sped up the dismantling of the Pit.
Our search units were quickly following upper-floor (fall hazards and upper-floor clearing) personnel across Column Line F, toward Column F16. All shoring was, for the most part, complete and solid.
Finally, near the end of Day Five, the Mother Slab was tied back. Firefighters drilled holes through the slab, steel cables were inserted through and secured to it, and it was tied back to the main stairwell, which was structurally sound. I was pleased with this solution, but it still didn`t end the talk about Mother.
DAYS SIX, SEVEN, AND EIGHT
Day Six began much like the one before. We began it, as with those previous, by searching “blind”–we did not have critical information about occupants` last known locations so that we could begin to pinpoint where they might have ended up after the collapse. We were digging, generally, only in areas where we had previously found victims. We made many finds this way, but it wasn`t until the afternoon of Day Six that we had some real direction.
Charles “Chuck” Smith, a medical examiner from Louisiana, and Todd Ellis, from Texas, both from FEMA`s D-MORT Team, came to us with information they had gathered over the past several days: Murrah Building blueprints with a list of occupants and last known locations. We had been requesting this type of critical information since Day One (in fact, one of the first questions Downey asked me was, “How many people were there and where were they?”). It was initially believed that there were 650 occupants at the time of the explosion; exhaustive research confirmed the true number to be about 350. We began to study this information so we could streamline our operations.
About that time, Hone`s crews radioed that they had just uncovered a child. The location of the child did not match that of the area in which the children from the day-care center should have been. I went to the scene and studied it very carefully. The child was found against the ground floor with no debris underneath it. Referring to our newly gained information, we believed this child to be number 30 on the medical examiner`s list, and that the child should have been a three-year-old. We also realized from the map that if the child was indeed number 30, it was a considerable distance from its original location designated on our newly acquired map. If our information was correct, the child was in the Social Security Office waiting room, at the north of the structure between Columns G22 and 20. Its body had been uncovered near Column E22. I closely examined the child and–based on a mental comparison with my own child, who at the time was approaching three years of age–determined that the child appeared to be a three-year-old. However, the consensus among the group working at that time was that it was a six-year-old. I didn`t agree and went home that day with the feeling it was a three-year-old.
I left the site that day feeling optimistic. For the first time, I felt there might be a system here. When I arrived home late that night, I went to my daughter`s crib and felt her arm. It reinforced my belief that the child found that afternoon was a three-year-old.
The next morning, I had hope that there was a way out of this. Then one of the medical examiner`s liaisons (not the one I had been working with) told me it was not the child we had been looking for but rather a six-year-old.
I was emotionally destroyed. I thought we had found the system that would drive us through the rest of the recovery–that for once we had a reason to go to certain areas, not just dig and hope for good results.
A few hours later, Smith returned and told us the child was the three-year-old; it was number 30. I was ecstatic.
Sure enough, very close to the proximity of number 30, we began to find all the other victims expected to be in that vicinity. It was a relief beyond explanation.
We knew from reading the building that in the collapse the Social Security Office waiting room had become part of the Christmas Tree between Columns F22 and F18. This was a particularly dangerous area for search personnel because of the way the debris leaned into those columns, and we already felt we would not be able to search it at all. All along, I dreaded having to explain to my chief that we would have to leave a large number of people in that pile. This new information, however, indicated that the people in that area –possibly more than 18–had been blown some 50 feet from their original positions. Now we knew where to begin looking for them. We developed a definitive, methodical plan for accessing and working in these areas; it included four inspections between the various operational steps.
Most of the caving and heavy void tunneling was done by Day Six. Between Day Six and Day Eight, interior operations personnel knocked the Pit and Cave to pieces. By Day Seven, the fall hazards crews were cleaning off the upper levels between Columns F16 and F22, and the search teams on the Pile were following behind them.
On Day Eight, fall hazard operations were extended beyond Column F22 to around the entire perimeter of the Bowl. A large section of the Pile, between Columns 16 and 12 in the front of the building, had been cleared, and we committed heavy manpower to the Pile just west of the Christmas Tree. Operations in the Pit were nearly over.
We were finding many victims below and beyond where we found number 30, just east of the Pit. Before it was over, we would find 67 victims there. It took from four to six hours to remove the average victim. Some recoveries obviously were quicker. Other victims could be seen and touched for days but couldn`t be extracted because of the massive weight of the materials in which they were entombed. By the end of Day Eight, the body count was up to 98.
DAYS NINE, 10, AND 11
Every day, the building was getting better, stronger–which meant it was safer. We were becoming more methodical. We were almost settling into a routine. It seemed at times we were working on a construction site–and then the smell would bring us back to reality.
Between Day Nine and Day 11, we spent many manhours on the Pile. The front of the Pile across 16G-F to 20G-F was well on its way to being cleared, and by Day 11 search and rescue teams swung east almost into the Bowl. The only upper-floor debris removal left was in the Bowl area. We were progressing quickly now.
As we entered this stage of the incident, we began to talk about safety more–but in a different way. I remember Ghilarducci emphasizing that we had gone too far through this incident, exposed to all these hazards, to make a stupid mistake now just for the sake of speedily bringing it to an end. The more I thought about it, the more the idea of “We`ve dodged the bullet and have been very lucky. Will the luck run out?” came to mind. We had to recommit ourselves to intelligent decision making at every level.
THE FINAL DAYS
Chief Marrs announced on Day 12 that we were entering the recovery phase. Most of the USAR personnel now had been demobilized.
By now we were down to only about 2,000 square feet left to search. Special operations personnel, working in 12-hour (6 a.m.-6 p.m.) shifts, began recovery work. We would move in from the east Pile into the Bowl. Heavy equipment would be used where it could be; manpower would be used in the smaller, closer areas where the equipment wouldn`t fit. We went to a 12-hour workday because the team needed to know the operation was coming to an end. Everyone was tired and needed to get more rest and avoid working nights, when lights and mental stress seemed to take their toll.
We still had not tackled the Christmas Tree area–the extreme hazards in this area had not changed.
By Day 15, we had pushed into the area of highest victim concentration, just east of the Pit, and recovered 18 more bodies.
On Day 16, May 4, approximately 18 to 20 victims were still in the building–three of them were infants in the day-care toddler area. This was one of the areas closest to the blast site and had been near the bottom of the pancake collapse. I remember pulling a small stick of wood out of this area halfway between Columns G24 and F24, in the east pile “bite” leading into the Bowl. It appeared to be a crib slat. I felt this was where we were going to spend most of our time.
I was prepared for the possibility that as many as 12 to 15 people might not be recoverable. As Day 16 wore on, however, we located numerous victims. There were five victims left–including the three infants. At approximately 5:30 p.m., I brought the special operations teams to the street and asked if they wanted to continue working past the shift`s end, as some had suggested, or preferred to come back in the morning. They unanimously agreed to stay.
Chief Marrs approved extending the shift and directed me to develop break schedules. The men went back to work. Within a few hours, we backed out the heavy equipment and brought in two OCPD search canines. We used these dogs because we were moving to a section of the collapse that was very tightly pancaked and hazardous to personnel. We wanted to confirm that victims were there. The dogs had good hits all over the area where I had found the crib slat. One of the dog handlers stated that his dog thought there were “some small ones.” I asked him how he knew that. He said it was just “the way Gunny was acting.”
At approximately 8:30, we dug to an area in which we found more crib parts. A few minutes after that, the first infant was found. Within an hour, we recovered the other two. I will always remember the expression on an officer`s face as he picked up one of the infants, cradled it, then calmly asked for a body bag–it was a face of indescribable tenderness and grief at the same time.
By now, everyone was digging and working–even the engineers. Chief Marrs had been with us for most of the day and now was constantly with the personnel. We were all ready for this operation to conclude.
We worked directly in line with Column 24, digging and backing out of the building. I knew it would be over very shortly; we were down to two remaining victims. I never really thought we would get the number of unrecoverable victims into single digits. We knew the locations of the last two victims from the dogs and the maps. It was nearing 10 p.m., and we were looking seriously at how close we could dig to Column F22. Even though this column was shored with horizontal bracing, its base was piled high with debris and its integrity unknown. We had left it alone for the entire incident–now we were going to mess with it.
THE FINAL SEARCH
Engineer John Osteraas and I consulted extensively about the safety of digging closer to this column. He felt we could dig very close, even possibly recover the victims. The problem was that for the past 10 days we were being told it was unsafe to dig in that area. I believed the engineer but didn`t think I could get the trackhoe operator to dig much closer.
It was now about 10:30. I asked the backhoe operator if he would mind making some probing digs around the column if we put watches on the column and on his bucket in the hole. He agreed. I cleared the building of all personnel with the exception of the spotters. The trackhoe operator chose Lieutenant Mark Mollman and me as the spotters.
I went to Column F22; Mollman went into the hole. At his request, an engineer came to stand beside me. Everyone else was out of the building. We dug a few minutes at the base of 22. One of the pulls of the bucket almost pulled my feet out from under me. I had one hand on the column, and I felt a lot of vibration in it. I didn`t know how much rebar that we couldn`t see was wrapped around the column. I stopped the backhoe operator, walked around to his cab, and asked him how that felt. He said it was very tight. I thanked him for staying with us and told him it would be fine to go ahead and back out.
I then reported to Chief Marrs that I believed we had gone about as far as we could. He thanked me and declared that the fire department operation had concluded. It was now 11:45 p.m. We shut down the equipment and lights, walked over to the makeshift memorial, and listened to a few brief closing words from the chief and chaplain.
It was over.
LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED
Size-up, size-up, size-up. If the rescue operations officer stops to assist victims (especially during the initial stage of the incident), you`re not gathering information–and you are going to need all the information you can get. Your information may be the only information available for a while. Take notes, slow down–write it down.
Hold more resources in staging. This will allow better control and more efficient deployment of resources. Bring them out when needed.
Clarify the lines of authority. Operationally, make a single point to get a grasp on knowing what the right and left hands are doing, want to do, and plan to do. Every commander had a different way of wanting to handle the site, based on knowledge and experience.
Assign jobs, delegate authority. Provide a better span of control at the lower levels. There were too many jobs to be done and too few experienced people to do them.
Site control. Keep the best-intended at a safe distance and gain control of the site. For the first few hours, the public and other response agencies had so much access to the building that they caused many problems with falling debris. They had no safety equipment and in general increased the opportunity for injury–to say nothing of increasing the responsibilities of the fire department.
Special operations chief–goals and objectives. Effectively communicating the direction of the tactical objectives allows team leaders to match their tactical objectives to the operations objectives. A breakdown in communications occurred when commands, work shifts, and task forces changed.
Escalate slowly. This allows tactical objectives, equipment, and manpower to equalize and better fit each other. Things seemed to be out of sync–too much work for too few people without the needed equipment, or the other way around.
Never stop gathering information. Keep all lines of communication open. You may get some information and not know its worth until a later time. I was lucky. People were everywhere gathering information in the hope that some of it would be useful. Some was.
Put high-hazard and risk areas in writing. Keep all your notes in writing so everyone who comes behind you will have an idea of what has been classified as a hazard. People had to cover the same ground we did without the benefit of all the support.
Keep all special operations people together. Keep your talented people together. They will feed off each other, and the learning curve will go up faster. The teams were broken up, scattering their skills. The learning curve flattened.
Rotate special operations teams every 12 hours. This allows fewer chances to miscommunicate and promotes a steeper learning curve. With shorter shifts, teams spend more time off-site than on-site. There was too much rotation; the learning curve went flat.
Write and post goals, objectives, actions. All task forces and shifts must have a clear understanding of operational tactics and the overall direction of the operation. Communicate the mission. Provide the status of each tactical objective.
Control resources and communications. At an extended, large-scale incident, fire departments must work to ensure control of forward resources and adequate communications between branches, divisions, and groups.
Follow SOPs. SOPs are designed to help you. Use them. Many problems were created because people felt there wasn`t time to use them; you don`t have time not to use them.
Mutual aid. Bring in only what is needed–trained and skilled personnel. Too much help–much of it untrained help–was on such a small debris pile during the early stages.
Set up a cache for special operations so there is no need to have to rely on anyone. When a task force would leave or go off duty, so would the equipment.
CO problem. Extended use of gas-operated power tools caused a CO problem in the tight, confined spaces of the collapse. Explore your electric or pneumatic tool options for debris removal/extrication work. Monitor for CO buildup constantly and take corrective actions (move personnel out of space, use ventilation fans, etc.).
Task assignments. Officers should carefully chose/assign personnel. The best tools in the world are ineffective in the hands of the wrong person. n
Photo courtesy of California OESFire & Rescue.
(Top) Approximately 10:20 a.m. on April 19. (Photo courtesy of California OES Fire & Rescue.) (Bottom) Outside: smoke, chaos, and panic. Inside: smoke, chaos, and panic–and many, many dead. (Photo by Penny Terpin James, IFPA.)
Ground ladders were used early in the incident to access lower floors. Note the light on the helmet of the firefighter above. Flashlights were essential for interior operations, even during daylight hours. (Photo above courtesy of Oklahoma City Fire Department; photo on next page by Penny Terpin James, IFPA.)
OCFD firefighters cleared “the Cave” on the first day of operations, erecting quick shores as they pushed forward. (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City Fire Department.)
A rescue team on standby at 5th and Harvey. OCFD had as many as 75 hand-picked firefighters on standby during Day One as control of the building was gained and operations became organized. (Photo by Penny Terpin James, IFPA.)
Firefighters and contracted personnel carry large steel horizontal bracing to “the Pit.” This was crucial for stabilizing two columns that had no lateral support over the first and second floors. Throughout this incident, contractors and heavy equipment operators were important assets. (Photo courtesy of California OES Fire & Rescue.)
(Left) Firefighters clear fall hazards from the edge of the sixth floor. The clearing of overhead hazards preceded large manpower commitment to search and rescue activities below. (Photo courtesy of Greg James, IFPA.) (Right) Contract personnel assist the effort by cutting down widow makers with an exothermic torch. This slab, secured by a strap, was lowered gently; smaller pieces were placed in the manlift and brought to the ground. (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City Fire Department.)
The enormity of “Mother” spoke for itself. (Right) The huge slab is already tied back as firefighters work to secure other formidable hazards. Note the ledge on Floor 8 in the center of “the Bowl” configuration: In the explosion, a woman was blown back into this outcrop as the rest of her office fell below; she was rescued. (Bottom left) A closer view of the Mother Slab, tied back. (Photos courtesy of California OES Fire & Rescue.) (Bottom right) Left to right: Shannon, Downey, and Ghilarducci (using theodolite) keep watch on the Mother Slab. (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City Fire Department.)
The Pit was cleared out by Day Eight. Here, personnel make some structural adjustments to the horizontal bracing that provided lateral stability to Columns F22 and F20 (out of the picture frame, left).
(Left) The operation draws to a close. The area immediately to the right of the trackhoe held the highest concentration of victims. Identifying victim number 30, originally at the front of the building but blown back to this area, was an important clue in finding this mass grave. Note Column F22, second from the right; the final two victims were buried in this area. (Right) A view of the “Christmas Tree,” after considerable debris in front of it already had been removed.
The shoring of Column G12 (shown after the search and rescue operations already had concluded). (Photo courtesy of author.)
OCFD covered most of the “26 Collapse Considerations” (taught and practiced by City of New York (NY) Fire Department Battalion Chief Ray Downey) within the first few hours of the incident–though, admittedly, I was not formally aware of the 26 points during this response. These considerations and how they were accomplished follow:
1. Time: April 19, 1995, 9:02 a.m. weekday, work day, morning traffic.
2. Location: Downtown 5th Street between Robinson and Harvey, Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City. Heavy population.
3. Occupancy: Work day, federal employees approximate 360; private (day care).
4. Height and area: Nine floors, approximately 115 feet high. Main building approximately 150,000 square feet. Total area 320,000 square feet.
5. Construction: Steel-reinforced concrete.
6. Size of collapse area: 54,450 square feet of floor space collapsed into 7,000 square feet of rubble.
7. Victims (confirmed, what-ifs): 650 possible occupants, as per building management. More than 350 workers assigned to building on a daily basis. As few as 24 and as many as 58 live victims removed by rescuers in the first 112 hours. [Editor`s note: Though official sources cite the number of actual rescues from the building as being 58, several sources involved in the operation believe the number to be closer to 25.] More than 200 victims believed to be still in the collapse. Actions:
–survey and reconnaissance of the entire area for trapped victims.
–immediate rescue of victims on the surface of the rubble.
–exploration of the voids and removal of the victims found there.
–selected debris removal.
These are four of the five collapse operational stages (the fifth is general debris removal).
8. Utilities (gas, water, electric): Oklahoma Gas and Electric, Oklahoma Natural Gas on scene, working within interagency command structure. (good relationship–Emergency Management Institute class).
9. Weather: Corporal Clint Greenwood (science officer/haz mat) monitoring weather, morning of Day Two.
10. Exposures: (N/A).
11. Fire Problem: 40 to 50 cars, three engine companies.
12. Traffic: Oklahoma City Police Department, Oklahoma County Sheriff.
13. Vibrations: sources: helicopters, wind, thunder, lightning, rescuers. Air vehicles not permitted near space. Monitor weather. Control rescuers.
14. Manpower: Oklahoma City Fire Department, mutual aid, military, later FEMA USAR Task Forces.
15. Communications: In the building, could have been better. Cell phones excellent.
16. Interagency operations: IC, Rescue Command, later MACC (Multi-Agency Command Center).
17. Medical needs: OCFD, EMSA, hospitals/medical personnel–handled quickly first hour.
18. Special equipment: Southwestern Bell, Oklahoma Gas and Electric, many donations.
19. Construction equipment (crane, payloader, etc.): Allied/Midwest Wrecking/Flintco, on scene. Allied on scene in 45 minutes.
20. Shoring materials: ICM/Home Depot.
21. Information updates: IC and Rescue Command.
22. Staging areas (manpower, equipment): established, OCFD IC.
23. R & R, relief of members: Rescue Command, Salvation Army, Red Cross.
24. Safety of members: Rescue operations chief, special operations team members.
25. Secondary collapse: Possible from initial size-up: east wall, east side “basement” from Bowl “kick out,” third floor columns 18-22, second floor columns 16, 18-22, below Pit (the Cave), south side “sun shades” south wall behind Column E24, Column 12G, slides from the Christmas Tree.
26. Golden day-survival chance: All but three known live victims removed within 112 hours. Final known live victim removed within 12 hours (10:30 p.m.) All 267,396 square feet of the remaining building was searched and “cleared” of live victims by 8:30 p.m.: OCFD and mutual-aid departments.
After the incident, I second-guessed myself; but after many discussions with Downey; Jim Hone (division chief, Santa Monica (CA) Fire Department), Interior Operations; Mark Ghilarducci (deputy chief, Fire and Rescue Division, Special Operations, California Governor`s Office of Emergency Services), USAR IST; and others and after going over these 26 considerations and the five phases of collapse, I have achieved greater peace of mind. n
BOB BURTON, volunteer firefighter, Choctaw, Oklahoma: At about 7:00 p.m., as Allen Adkisson and I entered the collapsed area, we asked everyone to be quiet. Someone thought he had heard a moan, Allen and I screamed in the quiet night asking if anyone could hear us. It was then I heard a muffled cry for help. I isolated the cry and found a young woman buried. Jerry McKee worked his way to her feet, where he uncovered a tennis shoe. Allen, Theda Adkisson, and I removed debris and talked to her, reassuring her that help was on the way. I asked her what her name was, and she said, “Brandi.” I said I had a niece named Brandi. She told me she was fifteen and that she had asthma and a heart murmur. Eventually, I freed her hand and she grasped mine and would not let go.
An hour and a half passed, and Dr. Rick Nelson showed up from above. He moved debris and cut plumbing to help us gain better access. He quickly became part of our team. The storm approached and debris fell on us. I was lying sandwiched between rebar and concrete and, looking up for the first time, I noticed huge chunks of concrete dangling from rebar. I thought, “This is not a safe situation.” If anything shifted in the structure at this point, I would be crushed or pinned along with the other members of this team. The area was very unstable and isolated. Fire personnel showed up with a shoring team to relieve us and complete extrication. I told Brandi we would see her again soon, on the outside, but it was very difficult to transfer her clenching hand to her new caretaker, Dr. Nelson.
Brandi Liggons was the last survivor.
From the book In Their Name, edited by Clive Irving, Project Recovery OKC. Copyright © 1995. Reprinted with the permission of Random House, Inc.
n MIKE SHANNON, an 18-year veteran of the Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department, served as rescue operations chief, in charge of operations within the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, for 280-plus hours. For the past 12 years, he has served on the OCFD Haz Mat Unit and as special operations chief. He is a hazardous-materials technician, specialist, and on-scene incident commander. Shannon is a lead instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Emergency Management Agency, a certified instructor at Oklahoma State University (OKC) and Louisiana State University, an associate staff member and course developer for the U.S. Department of Transportation–Transportation Safety Institute, and a course developer for the NFA course Hazardous Materials On-Site Practices. The four years he served with NBC warfare in the U.S. Navy led him to the hazardous-materials area.