On Wednesday, July 2, 1997, at about 6 p.m., five tornadoes touched down in southeastern Michigan, causing massive destruction, injury, and death. Compounding the effects of these twisters was the multiple occurrence of a meteorological event called “straight line winds.” These winds hit a number of communities with velocities in excess of 100 miles per hour. The quick-passing storm took a heavy toll on communities in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Genesee, and Saginaw counties, killing 13 people, injuring 117 people, destroying 340 buildings, damaging another 5,132 buildings, and causing approximately $134.8 million in property damage.

A twister touched down at the border of Springfield and Groveland townships, in the northern part of the county, in the vicinity of the Chateau Oaks mobile home park in Springfield and the adjacent Spring Groves mobile home park. An off-duty firefighter notified Groveland (MI) Township Fire Department Chief Merilyn McGee of the disaster. Chief McGee responded before 911 calls began coming in. Her initial size-up indicated widespread destruction, and she immediately began developing operation, medical, and staging sectors as resources arrived.

During the course of the incident, the response included seven fire departments (Springfield, Groveland, Brandon, Grand Blanc, Independence, Highland, and North Oakland Fire Authority), which provided engine companies; two police agencies (Oakland County Sheriff and Michigan State Police); two private ambulance companies; the Oakland County Road Commission; two collapse rescue squads (Pontiac and Ann Arbor fire departments); several heavy equipment companies (cranes, front-end loaders, and tow trucks); and Oakland County Emergency Management personnel.

Although many concurrent activities were performed during this incident, search and rescue was the number one priority.


First-arriving fire and police units combed the areas of greatest destruction, looking for injured and surface victims. Captain Steve Ronk of the Independence (MI) Fire Department was assigned Sector Two Operations Officer (the area of the most severe damage). The arrival of additional resources allowed Ronk to focus initially on conducting an approach assessment, controlling the scene, and assessing resources. The Medical Sector provided for patient and emergency responder care, transportation, and rehab.

Approach Assessment

Information specific to Sector Two, collected from neighbors, family members, witnesses, and police/fire responders first on the scene, indicated that up to five people were trapped in a four-home pile-up. Actually, it turned out that no one was in two of the homes, the third home had an occupant who self-rescued, and a deceased victim was found in the fourth.

Three of the mobile home structures were lifted off their foundations, flew 30 to 40 feet, and landed on the home occupied by the 36-year-old female victim and two infants (who, it turned out, were not at home). The impact and mass of these moving structures devastated all four buildings. First-arriving fire and police personnel reported seeing a person trapped in a collapse void area at the bottom of the large pile-up.

Directly adjacent to the pile-up, two other buildings landed upside down, and many nearby buildings were severely damaged. The affected buildings, of light-frame construction with wood walls and roofs and metal floors, were unstable, packed with debris and contents, and in need of search and rescue.

Recon reports also indicated that several hazards present included damaged and uncontrolled utilities, broken glass/sharp metal/nails, overhead objects, unstable structures, and a potentially explosive atmosphere resulting from several broken natural gas lines.

Scene Control

Scene control included removing unassigned/unauthorized people from the rescue area, mitigating hazards in the general area, and controlling traffic. Spontaneous volunteers and injured residents were initially directed to safe areas. The first-arriving USAR company suggested that unassigned firefighters, police officers, utility workers, and medical personnel be excluded from the rescue area. The police used barrier tape to designate restricted areas and help to retain scene control. As the hours passed, however, the established boundaries of the rescue area crept slowly inward.

Police agencies effectively controlled vehicular traffic for several miles around the mobile home complexes. Narrow streets with limited access segregated the command post and staging areas, facilitating the positioning of emergency vehicles. Despite efforts to keep routes open for arriving and departing resources, collapse rescue (trucks and trailers) units and heavy equipment had difficulty negotiating the narrow roads with their greater than 90-degree turns.

Firefighters and power company personnel were assigned to shut off numerous gas meters, pinch off broken lines, pull electric meters, and throw exterior electric breaker switches. Before all hazards were mitigated, however, a fire started in a critical section of the rescue area. A hot water tank with its pilot still ignited had been turned over in what was the utility room of Building 1 and had caused the room`s contents and the surrounding debris to ignite. Firefighters who hand-stretched two 134-inch preconnected lines, extinguished the fire in its incipient stage, removed the burning debris, and shut off the pilot light. Power company personnel then verified that natural gas in the area was controlled.

In another part of the rescue area, a broken gas line was covered by a flying mobile home that had crashed and landed upside down. A gas company representative on-scene estimated that it would take more than an hour to bring in a backhoe and dig up the shutoff valve to shut down the severed line. Since we had reports that several people were trapped in the area, such a delay was unacceptable. We implemented a plan that would control the leak at the break. Independence firefighters stabilized an unsupported lean-to with box cribbing and air bags carried on their pumper. They then removed selected debris, allowing gas company personnel to access and control the leak. The firefighters were aware of the risks inherent in this operation. To prevent ignition, they evacuated people from the area, shut off all apparatus and vehicle engines in the immediate area, and avoided using any potential ignition sources such as sparking tools and battery-operated devices. Firefighters wore full turnouts and worked under the protection of a charged hoseline. All donned SCBA for protection against displaced oxygen and gas-generated toxins.

Resource Assessment

Having determined that the void spaces in these buildings had to be searched, Ronk asked the incident commander to request the City of Pontiac Fire Department USAR-1 collapse rescue unit. The Pontiac Fire Department USAR Strike Team (located in central Oakland County) is part of the Michigan Urban Search and Rescue (MUSAR) Task Force. The request was approved.


The Rescue Action Plan consisted of the following strategic goals and the tactics needed to accomplish them:

to rescue injured and surface victims,

to mitigate hazards, and

to provide complete search and rescue operations with the arrival of the Collapse Rescue Unit.

First-in companies were able to accomplish goals 1 and 2 while preparing the scene for the arrival of USAR personnel and equipment.

Four strategic factors influenced the choice of the Rescue Action Plan:

Patient status. As noted, five victims originally were reported to be inside the pile-up collapse area. Except for the one victim seen from just inside the crushed doorway of the home at the bottom of the 15-foot-deep pile of debris, resident whereabouts for most homes could not be verified until much later in the incident. The patient status factor necessitated advanced search and rescue operations. Initial USAR assignments were conducted under a “Rescue Mode.”

Building conditions. The structural integrity of most of these buildings was lost or greatly compromised. These “stick buildings” of lightweight wood-frame construction were held together with collapse-weakened connections, such as nails and metal gusset plates. Their being rolled, lifted, and dropped by the tornado greatly compromised their integrity. Cantilever, lean-to, and pancake voids were abundant. All voids were unstable and packed with furniture, clothing, appliances, and damaged structural components. Emergency shoring was needed.

Hazards. Electric, natural gas, overhead, biohazard, fire, physical (tripping, cutting, and so on), and secondary collapse hazards were all present at this phase of the incident. First-arriving companies mitigated some of them but had to await for special resources to arrive before the others could be resolved.

Resource availability. First-arriving firefighters were equipped and trained to stretch hoselines, rescue surface victims, treat the walking wounded, and control gas and electric hazards where shutoffs and/or meters remained intact. The skills, material, and equipment needed for searching collapse void spaces and removing debris obviously were absent, dictating the need for collapse rescue companies.

Tactical Priorities

For the first-arriving companies, the tactical priorities were as follows:

General area hazard control: fire protection, utility control, and control of spontaneous volunteers.

Treatment of the nontrapped injured.

Rescue of victims on the surface.

The following tactical priorities were added with the arrival of the collapse rescue companies:

Audible “round-the-clock” searches.

Building stabilization.

Canine searches.

Void space searches.

Selected debris removal.

Patient removal.


When the first collapse rescue squad (Pontiac Fire Department) arrived and reported to the command post at about 6:40 p.m., it was given a short briefing and immediately directed to Sector Two. At that time, an additional collapse rescue squad (Ann Arbor Fire Department) was alerted, as were members of the Michigan USAR Canine Search Group. About one hour into the incident, the Ann Arbor Squad and search specialists from the Lansing Fire Department and Michigan State Police were activated.

Following the completion of hazard mitigation at the pile-up area, a callout search was conducted. No response was heard from any of the buildings. Buildings were then triaged (prioritized) for search and rescue (SAR) operations (see illustration on page 126). Building 1, which was at the bottom of the pile-up, was the first priority for SAR efforts. Inside, rescuers could see a woman who was heavily pinned by the crushed roof and the wall of her mobile home. The roof and wall were carrying the weight of the other buildings that rested on top of them. Additionally, neighbors had reported that the woman`s two infant children were in the house with her. Later, however, it was determined that the children had been out of the area with their father when the tornado struck.

The roof of Building 1 was crushed by the three buildings that landed on it. Load-bearing walls were broken and leaning, straining to hold the weight of the other structures that rested on them. The front of Building 1 was pancaked but had some voids created by furniture and the washer and dryer. The rear bedroom was now a lean-to collapse void area, with its load-bearing walls racked to angles of about 30 degrees. At the wall and floor interface, the victim lay pinned.

The second search priority (Building 2) rested on Building 1`s rear bedroom and provided much of the load on the victim. The structure itself was an unsupported (cantilever) lean-to. Neighbors had originally reported that two adults were inside (they were not). Initial shoring was directed at stabilizing this structure to permit interior search operations and keep it from further crushing the victim and void areas in Building 1. Three post vertical (dead) shores were constructed with 4-inch 2 6-inch timbers and Ellis clamps to support the center section of Building 2. The unsupported end of this building was stabilized with 4-inch 2 4-inch box cribs. Selected debris was removed, as firefighters ex-panded the now supported lean-to void in Building 2. Debris was removed by hand and moved to a safe area by means of a human chain.

In Building 1, two sets of vertical shores, using struts and 4-inch 2 6-inch timbers as headers, were placed in the rear bedroom area. An internal raker shore was built to support a leaning interior wall that carried some of the load created from Buildings 2 and 3. Gas company personnel monitored the atmosphere. At about this time, two Michigan USAR canine search specialists (one from the Lansing Fire Department and the other from the Michigan State Police) arrived on the scene. They were put to work on top of and inside the “pile-up” area. The fact that the only alert given by the dogs occurred in the area that held the one known victim reassured USAR members. Nonetheless, every area in the four-building pile-up that could possibly contain a survivor was stabilized and physically searched by rescuers.

During the search for the infants reported to be in Building 1, Pontiac Fire Department USAR personnel carefully performed “selected debris re-moval” and expanded voids. As the search proceeded from the lean-to collapse (bed-room) area into the pancake (front room) collapse section, a number of small areas supported by the washer, dryer, and bathtub were explored. In an effort to hasten the search for the children thought to be in the home, rescuers worked around the heavily pinned victim, who was obviously deceased. Rescuers reached her more than an hour after the collapse. An autopsy showed that she died of traumatic asphyxia within a few minutes after the collapse.

Once all of the areas of probable survivability were searched, it was determined that the victim blocked one last small void that needed to be explored. A medium pressure, high-lift air bag was brought into the void to carefully lift the leaning wall (and the structures resting on top of it) off the victim. Previously installed shoring had to be checked and tightened during this delicate lifting operation.

Following the victim`s extrication, the last void in that building was searched. Again, it turned up negative. The victim was moved to a more open part of the room, where she was placed in a litter basket and removed from the building by firefighters.


As search and rescue operations were being concluded in the pile-up area, the Ann Arbor Fire Department Technical Rescue arrived around 11 p.m. Alan Zsido, captain of Pontiac Fire Department`s Station #6, arrived on the scene around the same time. He was to head the nighttime USAR operations to be conducted by Ann Arbor Fire Department USAR personnel.

Sector Commander Ronk and I briefed Zsido on the current search and rescue operation. Michigan Urban Search and Rescue standards require that all collapse rescue strike teams be identically equipped. Therefore, during the time that both the Pontiac and Ann Arbor units remained on the scene, a redundancy and exchange capability existed. The Pontiac unit left the scene around midnight.

On its arrival, the Ann Arbor USAR Strike Team was assigned to a building across the street from the pile-up. It began operations just after 11 p.m. and concluded them a little past 4 a.m. the next day. The collapsed structure was shored for interior search operations and searched from end to end. No victims were found.


Although cleanup operations would last for several days, the search and rescue portion of this incident was terminated in the early morning hours of July 3. Personnel were rehabbed and sent home or back to their stations to complete their tours of duty. Equipment was recovered, inspected, and put back into service. Documentation was established, and debriefing and incident critiques took place over the next several days. Oakland County officials provided a critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) team.

This report focused on the activities conducted in a very small area of what was a huge, five-county incident. It is meant only to provide some insight into the operations conducted by our collapse rescue unit and by no means is meant to downplay the hard work accomplished by other fire and rescue personnel. During the 10-hour search and rescue operations at the Chateau Oaks and Spring Groves mobile home parks, fire and police personnel conducted other building and water (nearby pond) searches. Cranes, front-end loaders, tow trucks, and other heavy equipment were brought in and supervised by rescue personnel during the final stage of the search.

This was the first time that the Michigan USAR Task Force responded to and worked successfully at an actual disaster incident. For the first time ever, the state of Michigan funded and supported an organized urban search and rescue operation. Technical rescue capabilities on the local, regional, and state levels are needed as a foundation for a national USAR system. That foundation is being developed here in Michigan.


In Michigan, as in most states, more urban search and rescue resources are needed. Only a handful of fire departments are prepared for collapse rescue. The Oklahoma City Bombing emphasized the need for local, regional, and state urban search and rescue capabilities. We experienced that need firsthand.

Training and hands-on scenarios are critical to safe and efficient operations. Exactly two weeks before this incident, many of the responding members and agencies had participated in a Building Collapse Task Force deployment exercise. That exercise was instrumental to the success of the USAR operations conducted following the storm.

Hazardous energy mitigation must be verified by rescue personnel. We were told by the power company`s personnel that gas and electric were controlled in the area, prior to entry operations. They were not. A fire, started by an overturned natural gas-operated hot water tank, occurred during one of the search operations. Thankfully, no one was injured.

Prior to entry and during void search operations, conduct atmospheric monitoring for oxygen depletion as well as the presence of toxic or flammable gases.

All personnel on the scene need to clearly understand the strategic goals and tactical priorities of the operation. Write them down, post them, review them.

First-arriving firefighters should limit victim removal to those who are exposed so as not to endanger themselves and the victims in a secondary collapse.

Only skilled operators should use heavy equipment during rescue operations, and they should be supervised by rescue personnel.

Using the FEMA Search Assessment Marking System greatly enhances the efficiency of a multiple-building collapse incident. Groveland Township firefighters applied fire department stickers to buildings on completion of search activities.

A “probable area” for SAR operations must be geographically defined early in the incident. The size of the “probable area” for this type of incident is determined by such factors as the strength, size, and duration (time on the ground) of the tornado; the probable concentration of victims; as well as the type, condition, and placement (congestion) of the structures in its path. The “area” must then be divided into manageable-sized sections. Incident commanders must not get tunnel vision from a few collapsed structures in a small area when dozens or hundreds of other structures have been destroyed. In this case, Chief McGee was able to get an aerial view of the entire community from a TV news helicopter.

Lifting and cutting operations create action and reaction problems. Rescuers must understand and prepare for these consequences. Untrained firefighters learning this lesson on the emergency scene (on-the-job training) can end up “wearing the building.” This is a dangerous alternative to appropriate rescue training programs.

Many of the Michigan USAR personnel have had the opportunity to train with some of the nation`s urban search and rescue authorities. We have learned that the costs of rescue training programs is measured in terms of firefighter safety and in lives saved–not in terms of dollars and cents.

Be prepared for extensive scene (area) operations, including the presence of general area lighting for safety (to prevent tripping over objects, for example), as well as task lighting needs such as for cutting stations, search areas, and shoring sections.

Equipment and material needs must be identified early. Acquisition problems at night exist as a result of limited purchasing potential and extended arrival times. After business hours, self-sufficiency and resource acquisition creativity become necessities, as does a resource list with contacts and phone numbers.

Teams operating at night must have an internal sense of motivation and drive. It is easier to get caught up in the routine and lose concentration and perspective. Reinforced focus on the purpose, along with a heightened regard for safety, becomes essential. Focus and motivation can be maintained by developing task time lines for objectives that are to be met and by periodic briefings.

(Left) Disconnect posts for natural gas and electricity, typically found in mobile home parks, generally provide easy control during normal operations. In this case, however, the tornado ripped apart, disturbed, and buried the posts, significantly compounding hazardous energy control efforts. [Photos by Lt. K. Robinson, Oakland County (MI) Sheriff Department.] (Right) Firefighters not trained to at least a collapse awareness level will instinctively conduct search and rescue operations in hazardous areas. Atmospheric conditions, overhead hazards, and secondary collapse potential are among the many dangers awaiting responders at structural collapse scenes. These hazards must be recognized and mitigated to levels appropriate to the risk vs. benefit analysis.

(Top left) Michigan USAR personnel (far right) prioritize buildings for search and rescue operations based on the probability of locating, accessing, stabilizing, and removing (transporting) live victims from the collapsed areas. The National Urban Search and Rescue system had developed a systematic and numerically based worksheet for building triage. (Top right) Search Specialist Barry Gaukle, of the Lansing (MI) Fire Department, prepares to direct “Ranger” into one of the buildings designated as top priorities. Search personnel must position themselves in safe areas and be able to supervise and control the safety of their canine partners. (Bottom left) Before selecting shoring techniques, a number of concerns were considered, including rescuer safety, victim conditions/locations, building conditions, and estimated loads generated. The degree of risk to which rescuers are subjected has become a topic of debate and controversy. As rescuers, we are often presented with life-and-death situations that require rapid decisions. We must continue to make these decisions based on knowledge, experience, and an ongoing risk/benefit analysis. (Bottom right) Spot shores constructed from timbers and Ellis clamps were used extensively throughout the light-frame collapsed structures found in Springfield Township. Struts were used on a much more selective basis. These spot shores were conducive to the relatively lightweight construction present and the “rescue mode” operations being conducted at the time.

(Top) A woman occupant, found in a void space, died from traumatic asphyxia within minutes as a result of being entrapped by a collapsed wall. The wall was hit by extreme forces of wind and three homes that went flying. (Bottom) Medium pressure (14 psi) high-lift air bags were used to extricate the victim. Rescue personnel were positioned at each shore to monitor the progress made as the air bags lifted the wall from the patient. Adjustable shores were instrumental to safe and efficient void space lifting operations.

Night operations create a variety of challenging situations. Search and rescue activities, which began at about 11 p.m. on July 2, ended at 4 a.m. on July 3.

RON ZAWLOCKI, a member of the City of Pontiac (MI) Fire Department since 1977, is captain at Station #1. He began his fire service career with the City of Detroit (MI) Fire Department (Engine #10) in 1974. He has responded to a variety of industrial, urban, and construction-related rescue situations including machinery entrapment, trench collapse, elevated (high angle) rescue, confined space, and structural collapse incidents. He is a member of the Michigan Urban Search and Rescue (MUSAR) Task Force, sits on several local and state technical rescue committees, and has developed and taught technical rescue programs for MUSAR and Michigan State University.

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