Local trio freed entombed Haitians

Rescuers including Hermosan Larry Collins (lower left, without moustache) pull a woman from the rubble of a building in Port-au-Prince.

Hermosans Bruce Cook, John Stangl and Larry Collins helped perform complex and dangerous rescues following the Haitian earthquake. Photo

Three search and rescue workers from Hermosa had grown accustomed to performing dangerous operations under harrowing conditions. But they found a new level of chaos and devastation in the Haiti earthquake, as they tunneled through compressed stories of caved-in buildings to save people buried deep in concrete tombs, along streets lit at night by campfires and piles of human bodies too numerous to bury.

Hermosans Larry Collins, John Stangl and Bruce Cook were among a Los Angeles County Urban Search and Rescue contingent that hurried to the rubble of densely populated Port-au-Prince in the aftermath of the January quake.

Collins first learned that the quake had occurred while he was on duty as captain of the same search and rescue unit that would, two weeks ago, help Hermosa firefighters recover the body of a worker buried in a construction accident at Sixth Street and Cypress Avenue.

He had returned from a training exercise at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, where fire and rescue specialists had been working on techniques to free people trapped in tight places like the holds of ships. His pager, set to notify him of any worldwide earthquake 4.5 or higher on the Richter scale, delivered the news that a 7.0 temblor had struck just west of Port-au-Prince. He turned on CNN to see a grey-black cloud of dust over the Haitian city.

“Only one thing would cause a dust cloud that immense in the seconds after an earthquake: the simultaneous collapse of hundreds, or even thousands, of buildings,” he said. “We knew very quickly that was going to be a catastrophic event we were going to be sent to.”

Collins and the others were mobilized Jan. 12, the day of the quake, as part of a 72-person unit called California Task Force II.

The rescuers waited about a day at March Air Force Base in Riverside, until a military C-17 cargo plane was made available. Then they were on their way to hit the ground running in Port-au-Prince on the morning of the 14th.

“Within a couple of hours on the ground we were doing live rescues,” said Collins, 48, who was then a captain with Urban Search and Rescue, which is under the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Collins has since been promoted to battalion chief.

For two weeks they conducted rescues of “deeply entombed” survivors. Locals, were able to use hand tools to free lightly trapped victims, but had little hope of reaching through thick layers of unstable concrete and cinderblock. The deep tomb rescues were hazardous and arduous, the longest taking 32 hours.

The rescuers snatched what sleep they could in tents pitched within the grounds of the U.S. Embassy, where they stowed their rescue saws, hydraulic rescue tools, pneumatic and electric jackhammers, search cameras, power generators, lights for night work, and other gear.

“When we come in, we don’t take anything from the community except square footage,” said Stangl, 42, a fire engineer (or firefighter-specialist in county lingo.)

‘Off the scale’

The rescuers were turned loose on downtown Port-au-Prince, an area containing a national palace and cathedral, and a penitentiary from which 7,000 people had escaped into the streets. The downtown had been reduced to block after block of rubble.

Members of Task Force II had conducted search and rescue operations in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Northridge Earthquake, the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the tsunami in Sri Lanka, hurricanes including Charlie, Francis, Ivan, Wilma, Ike, Gustav, Katrina, Dennis, Rita, Iniki, Ophelia and Dolly, and earthquakes in Pakistan and China.

“We had a lot of people with a lot of experience, but nothing compared to what we saw in Haiti,” Collins said.

“Everywhere we looked were collapsed buildings. Two or three of every five buildings seemed to be totally or partially collapsed. There literally were too many collapsed buildings to count with your eyes,” he said.

As authorities compiled damage figures, they would find that some 280,000 buildings had collapsed, including some 30,000 commercial structures, Collins said.

“Hundreds of thousands, that’s off the scale,” Collins said.

There were buildings that had shifted along the ground as they collapsed, after falling like grotesque houses of cards, and there were multi-story buildings that fell straight down, landing like a stack of pancakes, and sometimes appearing undamaged from a distance.

“It looks like nothing is wrong with the building, but it collapsed on itself. What looks like the ground floor of the building is actually the second floor of the building. You think you’re looking at a four-story building, but now it’s a three-story building,” Stangl said.

“You have what is called a pancake collapse,” he said. “It’s not very survivable if you’re in it. But there are survivable pockets.”

Tunneling to tombs

The first wedge of rescuers spread out in two nine-member reconnaissance teams, aided by dogs trained to find entombed victims. The recon teams would call for colleagues assigned to six-member rescue squads, who came bearing the heavy rescue equipment. The recon teams had only to show themselves for their small vehicles to be flagged down by locals, who pointed them to the seemingly impossible rescues they would perform.

Stangl’s first rescue was at a school where a young man was buried two stories down. He was trapped in a bubble of space big enough for him to move around in, except that the twisted remains of a desk had him by the ankles.

“He was stuck by his ankles, and he was in a concrete tomb,” Stangl said.

When the rescuers arrived, they found about 10 Haitians in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops trying to break up the concrete by hand. The rescuers used sledgehammers to open an eight-foot-square hole and dig down to the man. When Stangl last saw the man he was talking, and sitting up in a vehicle on the way to a hospital.

The rescuers took on a multi-story residential building that had fallen over and come to rest at a 45-degree angle, trapping among others two sisters in their late teens.

“They were trapped in a void they could walk in. We dug down into the next building and breached over. They actually helped dig themselves out. When the hole was big enough they flew out of there like there was no tomorrow,” Stangl said.

“They were trapped for five days, but they thought they had been trapped for two days. No clocks, no food and water. It gets light, it gets dark, you fall asleep, wake up. You lose track of time,” he said.

The women showed signs of dehydration, such as sunken eyes, but they did not appear severely dehydrated.

On the same floor, which was the third floor, the rescuers extricated another woman.

“She was in the dead center of the building. She was face down on her mattress. Her ceiling had pressed her into the mattress so she couldn’t move. We dug down, tunneled under her mattress and pulled her out,” Stangl said.

Rescuers had begun their work in morning hours, continued into the night, and saw the light of the next morning by the time they got the woman out of the building.

Piles of bodies

The first night in Port-au-Prince was a spooky one.

“Officials were rightly concerned about security issues for us. Pot-au-Prince has some rough areas anyway, and now there’s a disaster. The only light is from campfires, our headlights, burning bodies at intersections – other than that, everything is pitch black,” Collins said.

“It was chaos on a number of levels – people trying to survive the disaster, and us there on the ground,” he said.

“It was a little uncomfortable the first night. We didn’t know what to expect. There were lots of bodies piled up, lots of tires on fire. Everybody was out on the street,” Stangl said.

“Then we found out the locals were very humble, and they appreciated our help. In some cases they even helped us,” he said.

“There never really were any security problems, even though it could have spun out of control,” said Collins, who also described the Haitians as grateful, and helpful to the rescuers.

“It looked terrifying,” Cook said. “We were a little tentative in the beginning, then we started to get a comfort level. There were times when it spooked us a little bit.”

Cook said the quake’s aftershocks rattled nerves.

“By the time we got there the bigger aftershocks were past,” he said. “Nonetheless it made your heart skip a beat. We wanted to come back to our families.”

The quake was followed by at least 33 aftershocks, nearly half of them measuring 5.0 to 5.9 on the Richter scale.

Special challenge

Cook, 57, a self-employed consulting structural engineer, was among a handful of engineers responsible for determining how to tunnel into the collapsed and partially collapsed buildings with the greatest safety possible. Once he made those determinations, he became a rescuer along with the others, “all the while keeping my eye on the building, making sure nothing changes with my structural assessment.”

Cook had gone to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as well – putting off a celebration for his 17th wedding anniversary – but Haiti posed a far greater challenge.

“In Haiti we were going down layers. This is one of the first operations that California Task Force II participated in where structural collapse was such a big part of the mission. There was not that much to compare it to,” he said. “It was the poster child of structure collapses.”

The area was long denuded of trees, and the collapsed buildings were made of heavy concrete and cinderblock, with smooth rebar that lost its grip and slid out when the structures moved. Disaster experts have cited poor construction as a reason so many people – perhaps as many as 300,000 – died in the quake.

The lack of wood around Port-au-Prince left the rescuers without the materials they would normally use to shore up the tunnels they were digging to reach the trapped people.

“Usually we shore it up as we go,” Cook said. “We train with wood framing, six-by-six posts and plywood, to hold up things that might otherwise collapse on us – beams that might come down, and the sides of trenches, the sides of buildings, or things up above.”

The rescuers approached the rubble of Port-au-Prince with perhaps more derring-do than they would approach the rubble elsewhere, partly because of the numbers of people trapped alive across Port-au-Prince.

“The buildings we were going in, if we were in Hermosa Beach we would say no one go into these buildings. Your standard of what you’re willing to do changes,” Cook said. “But no matter what, you’re not going to put rescuers into a dangerous situation unless there is at least a high probability someone is inside a building – a live person specifically.”

Rescuers respect the dogs’ ability to determine whether living people are amid the rubble, and give weight to their signals, among other factors.

When Cook arrived on the scene of a potential rescue, he would determine whether the building is safe enough to go in, and if so, how it should be approached.

“I want to find the best points of access, and I’m looking for signals the building is giving me about how stable it is, whether it is subject to collapse from an aftershock,” he said.

He looked at the building materials, connections between beams and columns and roofs, walls and floors to determine the extent to which they are compromised. He examines how vertically erect the building is, and the weight of its materials.

“Concrete is heavier, there’s more energy in it. Wood framing is lighter,” he said.

“Everything in Haiti is concrete and masonry. It’s more deadly when it comes down,” he said.

Another factor is the extent of collapse.

“A partially collapsed building is a very dangerous building. It is weakened, prone to more collapse, yet it’s sort of standing – not all the energy has come out of it.”

Despite the challenges, all of Cook’s initial assessments of the buildings held true.

“What kind of surprised us is that as bad as the buildings looked over there, once they were in their collapsed condition, they were more stable than we thought they might be,” he said.

Mission’s end

Barring occasional miracles of survival, rescue officials can look at the passage of time, plus the heat of the weather, to determine how long a mission will last. In a couple of weeks Haitians stopped contacting the U.S. Embassy about buried victims, and they stopped flagging down the rescuers’ recon teams as they made their rounds.

“It tapers off by itself almost,” Stangl said.

U.S. and international teams saved roughly 150 deeply entombed people, and the 72 members of the Hermosans’ contingent accounted for nine of those complex and hazardous rescues. They also searched countless other collapsed buildings for survivors, and recovered some of the dead.

Last week the three Hermosa rescuers met up at the city pier to be photographed by a newspaper reporter. Cook told his colleagues that when he was in Haiti, he did not know there were two other Hermosans on the mission.

“We should carpool to the next disaster,” he said. ER


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