The Work of a Task Force: Dismantling a Dying Building

The Work of a Task Force: Dismantling a Dying Building


At 1500 hours on April 20, FEMA`s USAR Virginia Task Force-2 (VA TF-2) arrived at Tinker Air Force Base and received a situation briefing on the tarmac. In a nutshell, we were told the building was devastated almost beyond comprehension. There were still probably more than 100 victims trapped inside. The two initial teams at the site, Phoenix and Sacramento, had been working for about nine hours, involved mostly in search operations, shoring, and debris removal. We were advised that a 15-year-old girl had been removed alive the previous night. We were to set up our base of operations (BOO) and await further instructions from the command section.

We were taken to the Myriad Convention Center with instructions to work with the building officials and develop a plan to house our task force and equipment cache and possibly four or five more teams and equipment. Our team leaders went to meet with command and receive our first assignment.

The convention center was alive with activity. Apparently a large restaurant association convention had been interrupted by the bombing. Dozens of civilians were busy moving out booths and displays to make room for the task forces. My assignment was to locate the building managers, brief them on the arrival of the teams, and establish receiving sites for the equipment caches. I met with Building Manager Art Franklin. I briefed him on the size and requirements of the teams, and we roughed out a plan.

At about 1700 hours, the team leaders came back for a briefing at the Myriad. We were to divide our team and send two rescue squads and a search component to the Federal Building. I was to stay with the remaining half of the team at the convention center and continue setting up our BOO. We were directed to remain in the standby mode for immediate response when called.

At the Myriad, I coordinated arriving USAR teams and the massive amount of logistical support arriving from Tinker AFB. The restaurant association and incoming civilian volunteers organized a cafeteria-style food line. As we were the only team in the building, we had first options on where to set up our “camp.” We chose a large convention room that was separated from the food lines, adjacent to the cavernous room that would contain our equipment cache and those of eight other teams. Our half of the team spent the next six hours setting up cots, making our cache readily available to support the rescue operations, and working with Franklin`s staff to ready the remainder of the building.

By 2300 hours, we had received two 10,000-pound forklifts; 6,000 cots; and thousands of MREs (meals ready to eat) and used BDUs (battle dress uniforms) from the Air Force. The New York City team members had arrived and found their room already established and cots and blankets set up. We staged and unloaded their cache with the forklifts. Two tractor trailer loads of disaster supplies arrived from Texas, as well as supplies from manufacturers and distributors from around the country–batteries, flashlights, blankets, pillows, boots, hand tools, toothpaste, etc.

Shortly after 2300 hours, we received word via our radio-repeater system that we were to pack up the rest of our team and report to the building in 30 minutes. Ken Murphy from our team took over the flood of activity at the convention center, and within minutes a bus from the Air Force took us to the bomb site.

Our initial team to the site had just finished a secondary search of the upper remaining stories of the building using a man-basket suspended from a crane boom. The work had amounted to a fairly thorough secondary search of the upper floors. It was impossible to completely certify that the floors were clear of victims due to the almost complete destruction of building contents. The team also spent a good portion of its time in rehab awaiting realignment of the command structure.

Around 0030 hours on Friday, April 21, our task force was reunited and given the assignment of victim search and rescue in what was being called the “basement” area but was actually a first-floor area at the south section of the building at Columns E18 to E14, with direct access to an underground parking garage. We staged selected items from our equipment cache in the parking garage and headed toward our target work area. A quick assessment of the area showed us that the Oklahoma City Fire Department (OCFD) had completed some preliminary searches and the Arizona Task Force had cleared some debris and placed about 20 vertical pipe shores to help stabilize the overhead floors. Our haz-mat personnel performed an atmospheric assessment and determined the ventilation to be sufficient enough for us to work without breathing apparatus.

The section we were in could only be described as surreal. It certainly did not look like anything we had seen on television, as the only TV shots were of the outside of the front of the structure, the blast site, and chimney area. The basement area was dark and cold, lit only by our generator-powered portable lights and heated only by our own body heat and whatever working humor we could muster. I have been in structural collapses before, mostly partial collapses from structure fires. This was different, however. Most of the pieces were really small, in fact pulverized. Wire, conduit, and rebar protruded from every direction. Some things were even recognizable–twisted file cabinets, telephones, drink machines, tons of paper, candy, baby toys, and lunch boxes. We were in fact looking at a small mountain of synthetic underground debris enclosed by monolithic slabs of has-been floor and ceiling slabs. But less shocking and of even greater hazard was the feeling that we could be wearing the remainder of the building in a second. There was a constant but gentle rain of continuously falling debris created by a still-startled and dying building.

And then there was death. There were the beginnings of the sickly sweet aroma of deteriorating flesh. Here, there were no obvious victims; but, as I surveyed with my flashlight I could see the shadows of bodies that had been removed during the previous 40 hours. There was the surgically removed stump of the right leg of the woman who had been saved the first day. I thought it looked remarkably clean, butcher clean, ironically clean in the chaotic environment. Her red pants were still lying wrinkled and entrapped by the same massive beam that pinned her leg to the floor. How she survived is incomprehensible. It made me feel glad for her, that she somehow was alive. My flashlight led me to dozens of trails of blood that led from above–rivulets of human fluid that eventually pointed to another poor person crushed to death by the annihilation of thousands of tons of building. There was a blanket-size swath of blood-soaked material imbedded in a failing column that turned out to be a body so terribly disfigured it was identifiable only by the recognizable foot poking through the bottom of the debris. Our night had just begun.

Our job was to attempt to locate any more viable victims, render aid, and remove them from the structure. We began to dig our way into the basement area with a single goal: If there was someone alive in our “basement,” we were going to find them in the quickest, most efficient, and safest manner possible. We worked in two sections at first, side by side. Captain Buddy Martinette supervised Squads 1 and 2, and I supervised Squads 3 and 4. We picked up every piece of debris in the area with gloved hands and passed it by hand out to the parking garage, where it was removed by a miniature payloader (Bobcat®). Some of the debris had to be cut with bolt cutters or torches; some had to be pried loose with pry bars; and some could be picked up with a shovel. There was no wasted movement. We rotated the team members away from the really heavy work, into rehab, and back to the lighter work to keep them as fresh as possible. There were no group breaks during this initial period.

In an hour and a half, we had cleared an area the size of a small house, right down to sweeping the floor. There were no victims, only signs of victims. As the area now looked completely different, and with a whole new horizon of building to be freshly searched, we called on the professional opinion of our search dogs and handlers. There were plenty of “alerts” yet still no live victims.

Having completed the assigned task, we were ordered to rehab for 15 or 20 minutes while our next assignment was determined by Command. By 0300 we were ordered to stay in the basement area and continue to spread out in a fan pattern away from the garage area, deeper into the bowels of the building. We were asked to work with a group of Oklahoma City firefighters who had been tunneling heroically into an area adjacent to us that was thought to have a high concentration of victims. The area was later to be known as the Cave and was underneath the Pit area where a large number of the victims were located. We were also asked to assign a crew to an elevator company that had just arrived to try to establish service to the central elevator shaft that was only moderately damaged by the blast. Martinette and I split the team: He supervised the cave-tunneling operation to the right of the basement area, and I supervised the expansion of the search and debris removal northward, toward Column F16, and also made sure the elevator team had what it needed to do the job.

By 0400, Squads 1 and 2 and a team of OCFD firefighters had completed the tunneling and shoring of the cave and removed about a dozen bodies. At one point, I was consulted about a shoring predicament in the cave by one of our squad leaders. We were lying on our bellies with body parts on both sides, attempting to make a decision on the foundation for the next box crib. The floor section above had formed a lean-to collapse, and the angles made box cribbing difficult at best. We moved the decapitated head of one victim to the side to make room for the cribbing. I then attempted to remove what I thought to be a piece of tattered orange carpeting among the dusty debris; it was the crushed skull of still another victim.

Squad 3, the elevator crew, built working doors on two of the less damaged elevator shafts. They also completed framing in and securing open shafts on two levels. The elevator contractors anticipated having two of the elevators up and running on generator power in another eight hours.


Meanwhile, Squad 4 and I concentrated on the expansion of the basement area to the left of where the Arizona team had placed pipe shores under the beam along Column Line 18. We cleared another large area, moving north, until we were stopped by a pile of debris that seemingly was suspended in the air next to Column F16. In fact, it was hanging in a huge basket-style configuration, held, it seemed, by nothing but a conduit track and the sheer weight and friction of the interrelating pieces of debris.

We had to remove this mass of debris if we were to proceed as ordered. We were directed to continue. After consulting with team leaders, engineers, and Command, we decided the safest way to progress was to clear the building of all personnel and, with a bare-minimum crew, cut the conduit track. If this worked as planned, the debris would gently roll out onto the floor we had previously cleared, and we could again begin clearing tons of rubble. If the plan failed, those of us remaining would be wearing much of what was left of the Murrah Building.

After finalizing the details of “the cut and run,” Command cleared the building of about 100 rescue workers. The remaining rescuers were Rigger/Welder/Cutter Jim Torrey, Firefighter Tracy Freeman, Paramedic Ken Murphy, and I. Specifically, Torrey would cut the aluminum conduit track with the oxyacetylene torch, Freeman would man a backpack water can to douse any sparks, Murphy would stabilize Torrey`s stepladder and help drag him clear of any falling debris, and I would watch the hanging debris pile for movement so the others could concentrate on the burn.

Torrey began the burn. A number of loud popping noises and some falling debris alerted us to the fact that the conduit was in fact holding a substantial amount of the distorted mass. With every popping noise, we automatically rehearsed our escape by high-tailing away from the anticipated fall zone. Within 90 seconds, Torrey was nearly through the conduit when we heard a gunshot-like bang: The conduit dropped and about 100 pounds of debris dropped from the floating mass.

The four of us stood with mouths agape, looking at this big chunk of building. Now the situation was worse than ever, as the obviously unstable mass would be impossible to even remotely work around with any degree of safety.

Command had limited us to one quick attempt at this task and then all the rescuers would go back to work if our attempt was unsuccessful. I tried to poke the mass with the longest pike pole I could find. Assured through Command that the building was still clear, I pulled and poked at the mass several times. At last, substantial amounts of the debris started to fall, but it was still only a fraction of what should have fallen. Slightly disappointed, we gave the building back over to Command. Within five minutes, rescuers were back at work in (or on) the building remains. Our task force was left to deal with our hanging mass area and a massive lean-to collapse immediately to our left, near Column F14.

Within minutes, we noticed that a beam had emerged from the suspended mass. It appeared as if this beam had been stabilizing Column F16 somewhat.

Bob Anderson, our documentarian/videographer, pointed out what he thought may have become the separation of an immense beam from the floor above. The separation was only about six inches but did not appear to be much of a difference from hours before. I asked Anderson to do a video comparison and prove or disprove his hunch while we continued with our stabilization efforts and debris removal. His hunch proved to be accurate. The video comparisons showed that before the cut-and-run maneuver, the beam was only about three inches separated from the floor above; after the maneuver, the gap was maybe seven inches.

Our newfound awareness of the massive moving building caused another tedious retreat of our task force, a review of the most recent events, and an analysis of the beam predicament by our structural engineers, Dennis Clark and Bernie Deneke. The revealing circumstances were startling: The engineers estimated the beam to weigh just in excess of 100,000 pounds. The beam had dropped about four additional inches by our manipulation of the hanging rubble mass. To compound matters, the beam had settled away from Column F16 by riding previously placed pipe shores approximately an inch (a mile in terms of a floating 100,000-pound beam). The shores now were leaning several degrees, and several of them were bowing from the tremendous weight of the beam.

In a nutshell, F16 was failing, all of the support for F16 was purely the rubble surrounding it, F16 was supporting the floor above via the massive lean-tos created by the floors to column F14 to our left and a very marginal F18 to our right; F16 was poised to become the first in a nasty string of dominos. If it and the beam it once supported failed, the entire building could follow.


Our task force notified Sector Leader Mike Parrish of the problem. This began the tedious process of notifying Command and the long list of engineers and decision makers. It would take some time to convince Command that we were in the midst of a near-catastrophe on top of the original catastrophe that got us to Oklahoma City in the first place. Most of our team (and nearly every one else with the FEMA teams) believed no one else could have survived the disaster. In fact, the risk-benefit analysis (body recovery or live rescue) of the situation dictated that everyone should have exited the building and collectively developed a plan of picking the remaining building apart from the exterior. That did not happen for another 48 hours.

In due time, it was determined that all other work would come to a halt until the beam and Column F16 were properly stabilized. Command sent John O`Connell to overlook the shoring operation and he, our structural engineer, and VA TF-2 developed a game plan to accomplish the shoring task.

The shoring requirements started with a couple of dozen 14-foot 6 3 6 heavy timbers. We compressed the entire task force into five working components. This involved taking communications people, technical search people, dog handlers, and riggers away from their customary tasks and putting them into one of the four rescue teams for people power or into logistics to help convey equipment and materials to the area.

We measured, cut, placed, and wedged the heavy, custom-cut timbers into place. The area was starting to take on the look of a medieval forest, but it seemed that the shoring was stabilizing Column Line 16.

While the situation seemed hazardous, it was easy to draw focus on the tasks at hand. By 0600 hours, two hours after starting the “Forest Building Project,” the 100,000-pound transfer beam and Column F16 had ceased to move.


We returned to our BOO at the Myriad shortly after 0900 on April 21 for food, rest, and rehab. We then packed up and returned to the site to work the night shift (1900-0700) for the next four days. As we headed back to the Murrah Building, we passed the teams being relieved. They looked drawn, dirty, and exhausted. They gave us a quick briefing.

Rescue Operations Command split our task force: Half of us worked the second floor, west side, and the other half the sunken floor area immediately above the Forest. I took our rescue squads 1 and 3 to work the exposed floor area of the west side. Our job was to replace the teams that had started removing rubble on the previous shift. There had been several reports of body parts and dog “alerts” in the massive pile that stretched along the back of the building, in front of the bomb crater and terminating at the east end of the building, adjacent to the Pit. (The part of the building most people are familiar with, the face of almost complete destruction, is actually the back, or north face, of the building.)

This area was completely different from working in the forest area, which was cave-like. The entire back wall of the building was gone, so we were working on a balcony-like projection, very much exposed to the wind, rain, and (at least) fresh air. The temperature had dropped to approximately 40°F, and the rain, driven by a stiff, cold breeze, was hitting most of us in the face.

As we dug into the pile, it was becoming more and more difficult to heave chunks of debris over the edge and onto the ground for removal by front loader. To facilitate this operation, Squad 3 began to build a debris ramp from the ground to the second-floor debris area. Squad 1 used rebar cutters and hydraulic tools to help loosen the pile.

It became readily apparent that this operation was extremely hazardous due to falling concrete chunks from the seven or eight floors above us. The wind was blowing hard enough to cause breadbox-size pieces of concrete to swing back and forth, which in turn could cause the metal rebar to fatigue much the same way a metal coat hanger will break if it is bent back and forth in the same place too many times. Smaller chunks had been falling, and it was possible that bigger chunks would as well. After we conferred with engineers, we recommended that we be reassigned due to the danger of falling debris.

Squad 3 completed building the ramp, which was 24 feet long by eight feet wide and stretched up to the second floor. When they were returning to help in the rubble pile, a chunk of concrete the size of a shoebox fell from above. It just missed some squad members and mandated immediate withdrawal into the safety of the remaining overhead of the second floor. We awaited reassignment. Luckily, no one was injured.

We were reassigned–half of us went back to the Forest and half to the Pit. Another team had added some additional stabilization to the adjacent areas and had brought the rubble down to a clean sweep in most of the area of F16, first floor. They also located the hand of a victim whose body somehow had been wrapped backward around the column. We were assigned to assist the coroner in identifying the hand and then work to remove the body from the remaining debris around F16.

The coroner arrived and injected the victim`s thumb with air so it would puff up enough for the coroner to obtain a thumbprint. The coroner then left to run the print for identification, and we began to extricate the victim. I have never seen a more difficult extrication. Debris from the back of Column F16 had engulfed the victim. His hand was the only part exposed underneath an endless expanse of debris. We were working on our stomachs and knees, wedged between the timber shores of the Forest and the exposed side of F16. The more rubble we removed from the column, the more unstable the adjoining beams and floor sections became. We had to provide additional stabilization to these areas as we loosened the debris around the victim.

The thumbprint was identified as belonging to a deputy sheriff assigned to work in the Federal Building.

Three rescuers worked from the exposed left side of the column, and three worked from the right side. No amount of pulling or pushing would free him from the column. We steadily pulled rubble from around him. We cut through a two-inch pipe that was pressing on his shoulder; this did not free him. Then we used a reciprocating saw to loosen the steel reinforcement bar around his midsection. This was when we discovered that he was impaled on an oxygen bottle of unknown origin. It was an understatement to say we were wary of the oxygen bottle: We could not tell if it was full of compressed gas or not. As Squad 1 worked the saw, bullets started falling out of the area around the deputy and his pistol.

Our shift was over before we could extricate the deputy, and our task force leader told us it was time for our relief to take over. Disappointment showed in everyone`s eyes. The deputy`s extrication would require another shift, and another team, to help in his final struggle for freedom.


Any effort members put in before working a disaster that helps promote team spirit and unity is worth all the time, expense, and sacrifice. It will yield maximum dividends in terms of safety, increased efficiency, and emotional support.

Staunch individualism and freelancing are dangerous to everyone, including potential live victims.

Attitude is contagious. A bad one is epidemic: It spreads through members like wildfire, causing a lack of concentration and a severe hemorrhage of safety margins. A good one spreads like a breath of fresh air, forcing consideration for everyone`s safety and increasing your survivability tenfold.

At any large-scale, multijurisdictional incident, expect at the very least some incident management commotion, painfully slow communication, change of task assignments, upset egos, and turf battles. Accept these as a part of the job and remain calm until the dust settles. If everything is running smoothly, brace yourself: It`s going to change.

At highly publicized disasters, expect someone to call you a hero. No matter how odd it feels, no matter how humble you try to be, you have a responsibility to people affected by the incident. Heroes are hard to find. People need heroes.

Do not be afraid to critique and analyze your performance. Stress causes everyone to act differently than usual. After it is all over and you have rested and digested what has happened, force-feed some positive changes. Nobody will ever perform a perfect, unimprovable rescue. n

Example of a task force base of operations. Most task forces were provided space in the Myriad Convention Center. The space was sufficient for the equipment cache, sleeping quarters, etc.

Nighttime operations brought an entire host of new hazards. (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City Fire Department.)

Typical box cribbing constructed in the interior void spaces. (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City Fire Department.)

A section of “the Forest.” (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma City Fire Department.)

DANIELLE REECE, age eleven, in letter to her father, Virgil Reece, real estate manager for Southwestern Bell Telephone, which had several buildings damaged in the blast, requiring Reece to remain at the site for several days. Too emotional to read Danielle`s words at the time, he shared her letter with members of Sacramento`s TF-7, who carried copies with them during their stay:

April 22, 1995

I Love You! DaD, though I may not tell you all the time, I Love you very very much. I`m sorry I wrote you But I can`t tell you to your Face Because it would make me cry. But, It makes me cry after I talk to you on the phone or see you drive away. I think It is so Bad what those men did. I guess I`m being selfish But I want you at home with me & mom & dawn we miss you very much. I now that all those workers people need your help but I do to Because your my daddy your spost to Be there to pretekt me from everything & I now that you wont alwas be with me but I need you now. I guess I should Be usto it by know Because you usaly gone on bussnes trip or sopmething. I Love you so much I can`t cry or talk to mom or Dawn. So during the day I walk out to the Big trackter & cry then to dry my tearse I ride my bike it calms me down Before I go inside. I guess this is like a small portion of what kids that parents are devoresd are like but in some ways it`s not Because you call & come home sometimes & mom told me not to make you feel gilty about this hole thing Because it wasn`t your fault & I now that and I Dont want It to sound like that OK. I Love you Come home as soon as you can. I will pray for you If you will pray for me!

Love (heart)Danielle Reece

From the book In Their Name, edited by Clive Irving, Project Recovery OKC. Copyright © 1995. Reprinted with the permission of Random House, Inc.

MICHAEL G. BROWN is a captain in the Division of Fire Training in the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, of the Virginia Department of Fire Programs Heavy and Tactical Rescue Team, and of the Tidewater Regional Technical Rescue Team. He is president of Spec. Rescue International, which provides technical rescue training and consultation, based in Virginia Beach. Brown responded to the Oklahoma City Bombing with FEMA`s USAR Virginia Task Force-2.

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