"Unbelievable" was the word most often used to describe the gruesome crash site of the Metro Rail accident in Washington, DC, on Monday, June 22, 2009. The daily commuter homebound rush was well underway when the first call for help went out at 5 P.M. The initial dispatch call for help was as...
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Within the first 10 minutes of declaring a major MCI, our Fire Operations Center — essentially, this is DC Fire and EMS' emergency operations center — was opened by Assistant Fire Chief Alfred Jeffery and Deputy Fire Chief Milton Douglas. To provide some background, the city is home to 600,000-plus residents and hosts about 1.5 million workers and guests each day. Knowing that we are sworn to protect all of the district's population, many more resources would need to be activated and moved into strategic positions. From the beginning of this single event until its conclusion, the department would be asked to respond to over 400 more emergency alarms for service. They would range from working building fires to automobile accidents to traumatic medical calls. Multiple tasks were handled through the "Fire Ops Center" to include activating dozens of reserve resources by calling back off-duty members; calling for and placing many mutual aid assets in our stations; ensuring that command was provided with all of the requested resources; and providing financial documentation for the entire operation to prepare for reimbursement.
As night approached, the focus was to provide lighting and other critical support services to keep the 200 firefighters and about as many police officers operating. Portable lighting equipment from the Metropolitan Police and DC National Guard was moved into place, tested and prepared several hours before dusk, providing enough daylight to work out any issues with bringing this equipment on line before night fall (it is a lot easier to add fuel in the daylight, for instance). The Friendship Fire Association was called upon to provide food and drink. Led by Director Walter Gold and Assistant Director Vito Maggiolo, the unit's performance was outstanding. If food and drink would be required to continue to operations, plans to have portable toilets were next on the list. Six portable toilets were delivered before dark and used through this event.
Next, responders had to find, extricate and remove what would turn out to be nine fatalities. Several individuals who were killed were relatively easy to extricate and disentangle from the wreckage. Most of those who died were trapped in the remaining 25-foot section of the lead car that struck the standing train. When the car was compressed to about a third of its original size, its occupants were entombed in steel. This task was difficult and gruesome.
At about 4:30 the following morning, a CSX track-mounted 100-ton crane arrived. It had been called in the early phase of this operation; however; it takes a while to locate and move into position a crane of this size that can operate on train tracks. Upon arrival of this device, the large once-immovable chunks of steel were lifts and placed in a "spoil pile" of scrap.
The overhead crane, using nylon sling straps to grasp the remnants and remove then, would get the large twisted components out of the way. When the operation approached a human body part, the overhead crane was removed and replaced by hand crews with various hydraulic tools. The hand-operated tools included spreaders, cutters, jaws and saws of different types. Using the crane and slings for the large and heavy material followed by the completion of the extrication process with hand tools worked effectively.
Generally, the standard complement of hand tools carried on a heavy rescue unit is not capable of lifting or cutting through train components. The standard complement is designed to resolve automotive extrication situations and just won't touch the work that is required on a train. Either have a plan that incorporates the use of a railway crane device or consider calling in an urban search and rescue (USAR) team that has tools that can accomplish train extrications. The drawback to either selection is time. This time, the railroad was able to produce an effective crane in a reasonable time, but this may not always be possible, so keep the USAR resource in mind when faced with such a large-scale incident.