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The brotherhood of Disaster City

By Todd Leopold, CNN
updated 10:07 AM EDT, Sat June 2, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Disaster City is a training ground for search-and-rescue personnel
  • Facility is full of rubble piles and crumbling buildings, which make for good practice
  • Responders who train at Disaster City have worked 9/11, Katrina
  • Firefighter Lee Rogers says of the site, "This is Disneyland"

College Station, Texas (CNN) -- The calls go out at 6 a.m. Saturday: "This is the communications system. What time can you be here?"

For the next four hours, the men of Texas Task Force 1 -- and they're almost all men -- trickle through the door of a squat brick building along a scrubby highway. Most are dressed in gray or white T-shirts and dark blue cargo pants, baseball caps on thinning hair. Some sport fluorescent orange vests.

They arrive toting heavy duffels, backpacks and hard hats. Some pack their own air mattresses. They come from all over East Texas, firefighters and law enforcement and various types of emergency personnel, driving in from Houston or Dallas or Galveston or Pilot Point.

Lee Rogers enters about 8 a.m. The 54-year-old fire captain has been here since Friday, having made the five-hour drive from Corpus Christi early to get a jump on the weekend. A 34-year veteran of the Corpus Christi Fire Department, he looks like he could have stepped out of firefighter central casting: ruddy and gray-haired, with a gruff, no-nonsense voice and a thick mustache.

Rogers and his colleagues are here for a weekend exercise. By midday, they'll set out for Disaster City -- 52 acres of crumbling buildings, smashed cars and rubble piles -- to put their search and rescue training to the test. They could be facing a bomb blast, a tornado, a hurricane, anything in which people are trapped and need to be saved.

Corpus Christi fire captain Lee Rogers, left, has been a part of the task force for more than a decade.
Corpus Christi fire captain Lee Rogers, left, has been a part of the task force for more than a decade.
Nick Scott/CNN

The warehouse where they're gathering is mostly empty save for a few registration tables. Fans stir up humid air; it's going to be a hot one outside, with temperatures expected to hit the low 90s.

Flash, the task force mascot, a basset hound rescued from last year's massive Bastrop fire, wanders the floor vying for attention while the men greet each other with hugs and back slaps. "How you?" they ask. Some wear thick college rings, a Texas staple. A few dip tobacco. Many, like Rogers, sport mustaches.

It's a tight-knit group, these responders. They seem genuinely glad to see one another, like long-separated family members. The task force is called up only for state or national emergencies, so they rarely get together except for exercises or in the crucible of a crisis. The rest of the time, they're back in their hometowns at their local departments.

But the bond, Rogers says, never wavers.

"The people I have been lucky enough and fortunate enough to develop a relationship with all these years, it's tremendously meaningful," he says. "We've got guys who are the finest people you could ever meet, and regrettably, if you meet them, it would be at the worst point of your life.

"We're brothers," he adds.

At 9:30 a.m., the task force leaders gather in a windowless conference room to go over the scenario. At 10, they're joined by the rest of the group, 80 strong. The details are slim: There's been a bombing. People may be trapped; people may be wounded. It'll be hot, so drink lots of water. Wear bug spray. Watch out for snakes and scorpions.

By 11, the group heads to the parking lot. Most climb aboard waiting vans and buses for the short drive to Disaster City. It's where they'll spend the next 36 hours, walking over rubble, drilling through concrete, slithering between collapsed walls to reach victims.

It sounds grim, but for a search-and-rescue veteran like Rogers, it's something else.

"This," he says, "is Disneyland."

Entering Disaster City

It looks like a bomb went off.

Really.

The eerily quiet streets of Disaster City are dotted by smashed and overturned automobiles; on one corner, a school bus has rammed into a collapsing telephone pole. There's a rubble pile of nail-ridden wood and another of reinforced concrete; a gutted house and an empty theater stand facing one another like ghosts. A few hundred yards away, a derailed Amtrak train and wrecked freight cars lie askew as if kicked by a giant.

Nearby, under a bright blue sky, a ruined strip mall, collapsed parking garage and shattered office building stand silent over the area.

It's a fa├žade, of course, no more dangerous than a movie set. Tunnels run underneath the rubble piles so "victims" -- local volunteers -- can enter and exit easily. No gasoline is leaking from the flattened autos. The concrete slabs are replaceable.

And yet, Disaster City is serious business. Every year, hundreds of emergency responders come here to practice their skills.

Brian Freeman, who now runs the place, visited in 2003 and 2004, when he worked across the pond for the London Fire Brigade. His group learned methods of shoring and stabilizing structures, as well as ways of handling victims. Then, on July 7, 2005, four terrorists set off bombs in central London, crippling the city's mass transit system, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700.

The Disaster City training made a huge difference.

Disaster City includes rubble piles of different materials, including one of concrete.
Disaster City includes rubble piles of different materials, including one of concrete.
Courtesy Bud Force/TEEX

"We would not have had the expertise if not for Disaster City," Freeman says.

The site owes its existence to two acts of terrorism: the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which killed six people when a van exploded in the structure's underground parking garage, and the 1995 destruction of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

After Oklahoma City, Texas A&M professor G. Kemble "Kem" Bennett got to thinking about what could be done to train emergency personnel.

"We'd never encountered or thought through about acts of terrorism on large commercial buildings," Bennett says. "Emergency responders learn by doing. We wanted a training facility to train responders in search-and-rescue from around the state."

Texas A&M was the logical site. The university was already home to the Texas Engineering Extension Service, a state agency charged with training firefighters and other emergency personnel. Bennett was its director at the time.

Indeed, Disaster City is merely one part of a sprawling complex that includes a fire training field and an emergency operations training center, the latter a place where city leaders are confronted with crisis scenarios complete with a fake press corps. The facilities are so elaborate, they include part of a ship, a fake gasoline tanker farm and a shed that represents a meth lab.

(The fire training field is next to College Station's airport, which can lead to interesting sights for visitors flying in and out.)

Disaster City opened in 1997. Many of its structures have been inspired by real-life events, down to small details. The collapsed parking garage, for example, includes a concrete slab that appears to be dangling from one level. That element owes its existence to a story about one of the first nurses on the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing. While rushing to save a man trapped in his car, she was killed when a concrete slab fell on her.

Wrinkles are added all the time. The initial rubble pile was concrete. The wood pile was added to help responders learn to handle debris left by hurricanes. Each of the concrete structures contains replaceable slabs for workers to break through. The site is flexible enough to double for hurricane-, tornado- and other crisis-stricken areas. Bennett is honored in the name of "Bennett's BBQ," one of the strip-mall businesses.

"This was the first robust site developed specifically for search and rescue," says Todd Fetters, who flew in from California to observe this weekend's exercise.

Fetters, a member of a similar task force back home, says other facilities have since opened with similar aims, and local governments still have their own training grounds, but Disaster City is a breed apart: "It's hard to beat this location," he says. The commitment to training and the complexity of the mock city "make it phenomenal."

'Can you help us?'

As Rogers and the rest of the task force enter Disaster City, they're met by a member of the local bomb squad and a pair of men in FBI jackets. There are lighthearted touches -- the bomb squad member's T-shirt notes, "If you see us running, try to keep up" -- but the training is serious.

Mike McKenna, another of the managers for the weekend exercise, designates a gathering point for able-bodied victims.

Not all of Disaster City's 'victims' are human. Mannequins are frequently used.
Responder Mike McKenna, center, describes the job as doing "the most good for the most people."
Courtesy Bud Force/TEEX

Groups of rescuers splinter off in twos and threes. At a damaged house, a distraught woman stands in the front yard. She clutches a mannequin lying on the ground. The mannequin represents someone wounded or dead, and the woman is a Disaster City victim who's been "moulaged" -- made up with mock injuries -- and assigned tasks.

Moulage artist Stephanie Thompson says the makeup adds to the realism: "When (the rescuers) go up and just see a card that says, 'I have a laceration on my arm,' they don't really take it as serious, but when you actually have a wound (and) blood, it actually makes the training more realistic."

"Can you help us?" the woman screams. She approaches one of the groups. "Can you help us?" Other voices fill the air: moans, pain, sobs.

The group keeps walking.

Lesson one: Be methodical. The idea is to "do the most good for the most people as fast and as safely as possible," McKenna says. If searchers jump each time someone screams or rescuers don't take the time to properly secure a structure before going in after victims, the result can be costly for everybody.

McKenna recalls some advice a teammate once gave him: We didn't create this disaster, so we shouldn't feel guilty for the pain it causes people.

"While that may sound caustic and insensitive, he is right," McKenna said. "Getting too emotionally attached actually makes us a less effective responder."

Urban search and rescue is a relatively recent creation. The concept was developed in the 1980s, focusing on collapsed buildings. Now, such teams are also called out for hazardous material accidents, weapons of mass destruction and wide-area searches. FEMA established a national system in 1989 and added it to the National Response Plan -- now called the National Response Framework -- in 1991.

Today, there are 28 task forces in the FEMA system, which, though overseen by individual states, have the support of the federal government. They don't just work in the U.S.: Several were sent to Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. The Texas force, one of the country's largest, consists of about 240 members. A third of them are here this weekend.

Rogers was among the early members of the Texas task force. He'd played a role in the organizing meetings, and in 1997, he got a call asking whether he wanted to join. His answer was an emphatic "Yes!"

In retrospect, Rogers seems born for the task. His father was a firefighter in Corpus Christi; Lee met his wife, Lucy, in the department -- she was a dispatcher for 29 years -- and pays tribute to his family and colleagues often: "Without family support, there's no way any of us can do this."

Still, it took a book -- Dennis Smith's bestselling 1972 memoir, "Report from Engine Co. 82" -- for young Lee to cast his lot with the profession. Smith was a young fireman in the Bronx in the '60s and '70s, when the area was starting to decay. For Rogers, it was Smith's tales of being of service that sealed the deal.

"I couldn't put it down," he says. "It was like, that's it."

Rogers is laconic, in that careful-talking Texas way, but also given to thoughtful, sometimes moving responses. He revels in the pleasures of the off-road joint where he has lunch on the way to College Station ("There's a lot of older gentlemen sitting around, playing dominoes, talking about their day, and you hear that real thick German accent you don't hear a lot of anymore") and chokes up at memories of 9/11. He worked at ground zero, helped in the aftermath of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster and waded through the damaged streets of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.

He talks a lot about firefighting in terms of service.

"We truly meet people every day, and they are literally at the worst point of their lives. Our job is just to try to make that better," he says.

But he prefers not to answer questions about his expertise. "I'm a strong back/weak mind kind of guy," he says, dismissing himself as a "rock-mover."

His modesty is unwarranted, says McKenna, a 10-year task force veteran.

"He's top-notch. What I respect so much about him is, he doesn't feel the need to beat his chest and talk about how smart he is. He delegates appropriately, he asks for input, and that humility shows in the quality in the outcome."

'It either chews you up or you find a way to endure'

The dialogue in Disaster City is full of acronyms and jargon: IED (improvised explosive device -- a bomb). O/C (observer/controller, a kind of referee). FSE (full-scale exercise). AAR (after-action review). BoO (base of operations). "Squadify." "Sectored off." The tongue-twisting has gotten so tangled that TEEx -- that's short for Texas Engineering Extension Service -- keeps a sheet with all the abbreviations.

Disaster City includes wrecked vehicles and demolished buildings -- perfect for training the members of Texas Task Force 1.
Disaster City includes wrecked vehicles and demolished buildings.
Courtesy Bud Force/TEEX

The task force is essentially divided into two teams, one for search, the other for rescue. According to the FEMA model, the search team is made up of two managers, two technical search specialists and four canine search specialists; the rescue team is larger, with two managers, four squad officers and about 20 team members. The search team handles the technical side, using cameras, mapping equipment, GPS and legwork to gather intelligence on where the victims are, while the rescue team does the "strong back" work of shoring up entryways and cutting through concrete. McKenna is one of two search team managers; Rogers is a rescue manager.

"They find them," Rogers says of McKenna's team. "It's up to us to get 'em."

In reality, the breakdown isn't so cut-and-dried, says McKenna. If there's strong communication and agreement between the search and rescue teams, everyone can pitch in on both tasks, which saves time and improves relationships -- "tactical and practical," in McKenna's words.

Rogers agrees. You adhere to protocol, he says, but as long as the responders have been properly trained -- and working at Disaster City is part of gaining that expertise -- there's room for taking on more responsibility. Most search-and-rescue teams are made up of firefighters, and in the real world, "your local fire department is an all-hazards agency. We have to be jacks of all trades," he says. "We try to use what we have to get the job done."

That doesn't mean everybody does their own thing and tries to be a hero.

Lesson two: It pays to be patient. The Hollywood version, which Rogers scoffs at, has searchers racing off to find victims with what seems like little planning. Then, the rescuers come in and save the day by reaching out a hand to a desperate victim just before the walls fall in.

The real job is much more painstaking. A task force might not arrive until hours after local responders have gotten to the scene. Finding and freeing victims also may take many hours. Plus, they never know what they're going to find, says Rogers.

"Can we train for everything? No. Would we know we were going to go to Lufkin, Texas, and do wide-area search for the Columbia disaster? No, we can't train for that," he says. "We can train for wide-area search. We can train for our planning processes and our search processes and such."

But when it comes to a space shuttle disintegrating on re-entry, he said, "we are dealing with hazmat on an incredible scale, with hyperbolic fuels and cylinders that look like something literally from outer space."

The uncommon experiences are a persuasive reason to return to Disaster City.

"Our guys get to do something that they wouldn't maybe see on the field," he says. "And they put that paint in their bucket, so when we do get out there on a real disaster, they can say, 'We got that.' "

Real-life disasters bring out the extremes, the responders say. Working ground zero after 9/11, Rogers recalls, was like "the beaches at Normandy two or three days after the landing. ... I still think about it, sometimes daily." He chokes up. "Our main focus there was to support FDNY. Whatever they needed, we were happy to help. As an old firefighter -- and most of us there were firefighters -- you see those guys' faces, and you see faces of guys from (back home)."

Hurricane Katrina was a different kind of nightmare.

The Texas task force was called up several days after the storm, and they saw up close what people around the world saw on television: streets and houses flooded with brackish, fetid "black water"; desperate victims on rooftops and balconies; the HR -- human remains -- hidden in attics and left on highway approach ramps.

Search-and-rescue personnel break through concrete -- a painstaking task.
Search-and-rescue personnel break through concrete -- a painstaking task.
Courtesy Bud Force/TEEX

"There was damage, despair and disgust everywhere," McKenna says. "We are conditioned to view damage myopically: We see a house fire, a car wreck, etc., out of our forward view and for usually just a couple of hours. But if we turn our head or walk away, we can regain 'normal.' In Katrina, we never escaped the view, smell and sounds of widespread destruction, for 27 days. It either chews you up or you find a way to endure."

The stories are legion. One responder recalls trying to eat on a highway ramp, HR decomposing behind him. (A TV reporter failed at keeping lunch down.) Another found a dog in a house. Its owner had died, and the dog had stayed alive by gnawing on his owner's arm.

McKenna recalls seeing stranded victims who refused to leave their residences without their pets. He suspects that some of them died. Rogers remembers warnings about the black water, with a directive to report directly to the hospital if you became immersed in the stuff. Soon after, he was out with a colleague.

"Sure enough, the guy stepped in a hole," he says. "The black water was bad."

But Rogers takes solace that in the midst of tragedy, he and his colleagues saved lives and treated the dead respectfully.

Rogers came to New Orleans to support disaster mortician teams. He remembers helping remove the body of an elderly woman from a house around hard-hit Elysian Fields Avenue when he was approached by a dazed-looking man.

"I said, 'Can we help you, sir?' And he said, 'That's my house.' And I said, 'I think we're getting your mom out.' And he goes, 'Yeah, I think so.'

"And then he looks up and says, 'Why are you here?' And I said, 'We're here for you.' He said, 'For me?' And he was choking up a little bit, and I was choking up a little bit, and I was like, 'That's why we're here, man. We're here to take care of you. Today, we got the call for your mom, and let me assure you, we're doing this as respectfully and gently and nice and easy as we possibly can. We want to make sure she's comfortable.'

"You don't get a lot of one-on-one personal contact with people when you're on these jobs," Rogers says. "It's usually bam-bam-bam. And that was one of those times. 'You're here for me? All the way from Texas?' "

Sharpening skills

It's about 2 p.m. in Disaster City, and the group arrives at the office building and attached parking garage. According to the scenario, 100 people -- some at a Lions Club meeting -- were in the building when the bomb went off. Some victims are trapped in cars, many of which have been crushed and jut out from the garage at odd angles.

Rogers remains focused.

"Safety. All day long, this is what we're thinking of," he says. "We watch each others' backs."

Lesson three: Be mindful. One FEMA guide begins with a story about a fire officer who used the excuse "it was an emergency" to drive his 30,000-pound truck over a bridge with a 10,000-pound load limit.

"Rescue personnel often think that the physical laws of the universe do not apply when there is 'an emergency,' " the guide notes dryly.

At the garage, rescuers use wood beams to shore up and stabilize trouble spots. Jackhammers break up concrete; saws are trotted out for rebar. Rogers and his colleagues keep an eye on the drillers, hammerers, machine operators; everybody wears protective gear, from gloves to masks, and some carry portable devices measuring air toxicity. It all matters.

The men running the scenario -- not unlike the gamemakers of "The Hunger Games" -- like to throw in plot twists, or "injects" as they're known in Disaster City lingo, to keep the rescue teams on their toes. One such inject indicated that flammable vapors had increased when rubble was removed from the crushed cars. It's the kind of seemingly small detail the exercises are meant to highlight. There are even medics around to "check" the task force for exposure to toxic fumes, right down to the search-and-rescue dogs.

"You don't want to get behind the eight ball," medic Justin Todd says. "It's harder to treat once the symptoms set in."

Not all of Disaster City's 'victims' are human. Mannequins are frequently used.
Not all of Disaster City's "victims" are human. Mannequins are frequently used.
Courtesy Bud Force/TEEX

The task force handles the work effortlessly. They're all veterans, these guys, some with more than 25 years of experience. Jeff Saunders, the operations chief, describes them as "the top 5%."

But there are some relative youngsters here, too. Brett Fuller, 29, has been on the task force for three years; he usually works as a NASA crane operator and specializes in heavy rigging. LaTerrance Majors, 32, a Fort Worth firefighter, is taking part in his third exercise at Disaster City. The training teaches him "there are different ways of getting the job done," he says.

"It's sharpened my skills," he says. "I'll take my work here and try to share the knowledge with my colleagues."

By 6:30 p.m., the light has started fading at the parking garage. Two mannequins are carried out and then a live woman. "Job well done," one of the responders shouts. But it's not quite over: There may be one more person inside. The responders get ready to pull out the floodlights. They'll need them when darkness falls.

X's and barks

Sunday morning dawns hazy with the promise of another hot day. The bugs are out in force. By 8:30, the task force is already back at work near the parking garage; word has it, people are trapped in the office building next door. A squad cuts away at concrete, looking for an opening. It's going to take some time.

By now, several Disaster City buildings are sporting large, bright green fluorescent Post-It-style stickers indicating they've been searched. They're a formal version of the spray-painted "X's" the nation got to know during Katrina. The old X's didn't always have a consistent meaning, says Fetters, the California observer, and homeowners weren't happy to find a large blotch of spray paint on their front porches. The new stickers still feature the X but also more detailed information, with a code key at the bottom of the page.

Over at the Pancake House -- a simple, boxy, one-story building where the roof has literally fallen in -- Grace, a black Labrador, methodically wanders through doorways and holes in the walls. She barks sharply. She's found something, her handler says. Where, he doesn't know.

A second dog, a yellow Lab named Sandy, goes in. She too detects a human scent. The person may be just behind a door. But there's debris in the way, and the rescuers will have to work carefully to reach him.

The team drills a pilot hole and pokes a camera through to get a better sense of what's inside. A hazmat specialist takes readings; dogs are brought in again to verify the presence of a human being. The area is shored up and stabilized. Only then is the hole made bigger, and finally, the victim is spotted slumped against a door. The procedure takes about five hours.

It turns out the victim was the bombing suspect, but for the sake of the exercise, the rescuers weren't too concerned with law enforcement implications, McKenna says. The goal was a safe and methodical rescue. As the discipline grows, though, so too does the cooperation between law enforcement and search and rescue teams, he says.

"The likelihood is that we will continue to respond to events that may have a criminal component," he says.

'Thankful every day'

Overall, McKenna and Rogers judge the weekend a success. Though there are some details to work on, both praise the task force's stress on teamwork.

It's a concept that's close to McKenna's heart.

"We have to understand that there's something bigger than us. It's the concept of the team over the individual. And the people who have that do exceptionally well in this environment."

For Rogers, it's been good to return to Disneyland, if only for a weekend. He's pleased to have worked so closely with McKenna, whom he'd met before but hadn't worked with directly, and see the kind of teamwork McKenna espouses.

Rescue workers lift a victim out of the Disaster City parking garage.
Rescue workers lift a victim out of the Disaster City parking garage.
Courtesy Bud Force/TEEX

It's not just training -- "the greatest ever" -- to Rogers. It's friendship. Brotherhood. Service.

He thinks about the men in his charge, the strains of the job, the value of relationships.

"I watch my guys all the time. I want to make sure they're on point and focused. We've got a lot of work to do, so we don't have time to think about how is this affecting me. We're busy," he says.

There are support systems to help the crew decompress, but the best stress management is simply seeing your friends and loved ones, he says. After working in New York in the wake of 9/11, he says, "I just wanted to go home. I wanted to hug my wife. It'll make you thankful every day."

He recalls his friend Tony Tortorice, a Houston fire captain and co-founder of the task force who was at ground zero as an assistant task force leader. By the middle of the decade, Tortorice's health had begun deteriorating from lung problems, though he stayed active and was part of the task force group that responded to Katrina. He was a beloved figure. After Katrina, as the task force drove back into Houston on Tortorice's birthday, colleagues from his firehouse had gathered on an overpass to welcome him back with a "Happy Birthday" banner.

"I couldn't help but notice Tony had a little tear in his eye after that," Rogers says.

Tortorice died last year. As task force members checked in at Disaster City on Saturday, there was a small tribute set aside for him on a table, a way to remember their fallen comrade.

And Rogers thinks about why he does what he does. The events -- Katrina, the shuttle, 9/11 -- have changed him, he says. He knows he's part of a public trust. Sometimes, it's for a cataclysm. Other times, something much smaller.

There was an incident a few weeks back in Corpus Christi, he says. It was the middle of the night, and his crew had gotten called on a report of a "man down" at a car lot. Upon arrival, there was no fire, just some nervous owners who claimed a man had tried to break in and had fallen asleep on the couch.

Rogers' team took care of the situation, and then Rogers, not unkindly, asked one of the owners why they called the fire department.

"I called you," the man said, "because I knew you would come."

Additional photos by Bud Force/TEEX

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