On The Job - Salt Lake City: Training For Disasters Pays Off When Tornado Rips Downtown Areas

Chief Don Berry
Personnel: 346 career firefighters
Apparatus: Three ladders, 12 pumpers, seven paramedic units, one hazmat unit
Population: 180,000
Area: 100 square miles

Before Aug. 11, 1999, the last time a tornado passed through Salt Lake City, the Green Bay Packers beat the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II, Warsaw Pact troops invaded what was then Czechoslovakia and North Vietnamese troops launched the Tet offensive. The year was 1968, and a weak tornado - rated at F0 on the Fujita scale with winds estimated at less than 65 mph - broke a few windows and was gone before most people even knew it had been there.

The twister that unexpectedly roared through downtown Salt Lake City last summer, though, was the "real deal." Rated at F2, it took a startled and frightened public by complete surprise. Potentially lethal winds of up to 165 mph immediately got everybody's attention as the twister wound its capricious way through a crowded downtown area.

When it finally dissipated after having touched ground for nine minutes, its 21/2-mile-long-by-half-mile-wide damage track left one person dead and 84 injured, 34 homes destroyed, 87 homes damaged and 20,000 customers in the downtown area without electrical power. Lightning also struck several people.

Salt Lake City, with a base population of 180,000, is the largest city in Utah. Commuters raise the total number of inhabitants to 350,000 during the day. The city is protected by a 346-member fire department, 270 of whom are engaged in suppression. The department responds out of 13 stations strategically situated over an area of 100 square miles.

Tornados are rare in Utah, which has experienced about 30 of them in 25 years; most of them touch down in sparsely populated areas and often are mistaken for dust devils. The topographical environment in Utah is not favorable to the formation of twisters. In order to form, tornados need a clash of air masses. Cold air from the north encounters warm air from the south and create the shear necessary for a tornado to form. The mountain ranges that are prevalent in Utah and other western states shred air masses and tear up systems.

The Utah Landscape

Interstate Highway 15 accesses the city from the south and north, Interstate 80 comes from a diagonally east-by-northeast direction and splits in two to form Interstate 215, essentially a huge loop road called the Belt Route around the city. Interstate 215 continues north and runs parallel to Interstate 15, giving access from that direction.Salt Lake City's streets, boulevards and avenues have been assigned both directional and numerical values and are primarily laid out in a grid system.

The Great Salt Lake Desert that stretches unabated to the Nevada border lies directly west of the city. Huge sun-scorched sand tracts characterize this vast, inhospitable area interspersed by rugged mountain ranges. It is uninhabited by humans save for a few tiny settlements and military firing ranges and testing grounds that are restricted areas.

Results of tornadic activity can be predicted. F1 denotes moderate damage, F3 means extreme damage and so on. Damage can also be reduced to an extent, if there is sufficient warning that a twister is on its way. Salt Lake City had none.

On Aug. 11, the National Weather Service's NEXRAD radar on Promontory Point, 45 miles northwest of Salt Lake City, initially detected a small rotation over the city's airport. Such cyclonic air circulation is often associated with strong thunderstorms, but rarely produces tornadoes.

The radar sits 6,500 feet above sea level and rotates like a lighthouse beacon. Its waves bounce off dust, moisture, rain, snow, haze, and even insects and birds to detect wind speeds, precipitation and storm structures that can produce tornadoes.

NEXRAD can scan 19.5 degrees skyward, but only half a degree downward. Taking into account the earth's curvature, it cannot detect anything in the Salt Lake Valley below an elevation of 9,000 feet or 6,000 feet above the valley floor. Aiming the radar lower would allow hills to block some waves and cause other waves to bounce off the ground, ruining data used for forecasting.

At 12:48 P.M., the National Weather Service issued a warning of damaging winds in excess of 65 mph and hail up to three-quarters of an inch in diameter. By that time, the tornado had been on the ground for three minutes.

Firefighter/EMT Steve Hoffman (who took the photo on the facing page) got an uncomfortably close view.

"We were out (on Truck 2) inspecting our district and were heading back to our station (number 2)," he said. "I was tillering the truck. I looked up and the clouds started swirling. It looked like an upside-down ice cream cone. There was a dust devil off to one side. It was 100 to 150 feet wide. There was a lot of noise, wind and debris flying through the air. We were 200 yards from where it hit. Then the air got calm. The funnel hit the ground. The rain came, then dissipated. I took a picture. We thought it was done. Then it touched down."

The downtown section where the incident occurred is 99% businesses. Many people had seen the cloud and the funnel and called 911, many from their cars. The twister damaged two private clubs and the Utah Transit Authority bus barn before slamming into the west side of the rectangular Delta Center, home to two professional basketball teams. Long sections of the roof on the arena's west side were torn away and glass was shattered on several sides. A few people were working and one later stood on the flooded basketball court and looked at the sky through a large hole where the roof had been. Taking shelter in the catacomb-like bowels of the arena, the crew was unscathed.

On the north side of the same block is the Triad Center, a large office complex. One witness whose eighth-floor office in the L-shaped Triad Center overlooks the Delta Center saw tree limbs, parts of trees and pieces of the Delta Center itself flying around.

The 15-story Wyndham Hotel occupies the northwest quarter of the block directly southeast of the Triad Center and on the adjacent northerly block is the Outdoor Retailer's Market. The Salt Palace, a three-story convention center, fills much of the next block heading east, while two blocks north and one block east is the square-shaped Assembly Hall, with seating for 7,000 to 10,000 people.

These buildings and blocks comprise a major part of the incident area and are where the fatality and most of the injuries occurred. Several blocks diagonally to the northeast is the State Capitol building, Memory Grove and the Avenues neighborhood. The latter two sections of the city received substantial property damage and minimal casualties. Captain Dennis Goudy, commander of Truck 2, which was tillered by Hoffman and also manned by Paramedic Steve Crandall, Engineer Tom James and EMT Kevin Forbes, was the first fire officer on the scene.

"We had just finished up some business inspections north of the (Outdoor Retailers) Market area, and went to get some lunch," Goudy said. "I was on Truck 2. We were running five-handed that day. It was getting dark and real quiet. I was just in the process of paying for groceries prior to going back to the station. I was cook that day. The store lights flickered and the whole building rumbled. One of my crew thought it was a huge dust devil. We were two blocks from reported smoke in the area. We investigated that and found there was no emergency. We were facing west. Had we turned around, we would have seen the tornado.

"Then we got a call about collapsed tents. We had done pre-planning with the tents, primarily fire protection. My crew knew exactly what it was because we were going to do a walk-through that day. I called for a full assignment. We arrived from the west. In front of our truck was a cleared area about 60 feet by 60 feet."

Captain Bryan Dale of the Medical Division was acting public information officer (PIO) that day.

"I was dispatched at 12:53 P.M.," he said, "and arrived at the incident at 12:58 P.M. and went to the incident CP (command post) that was situated in front of the collapsed structure."

The two tents, one slightly larger than the other, had been erected for an Outdoor Market Retailers show. They were large, same-type temporary structures, approximately 20 to 30 yards across and approximately 900 feet long. The center height was 30 feet. The walls were heavy canvas supported by a skeleton of aluminum I beams. Carpet had been laid over the raised wooden floors.

The tents contained various-size booths, display areas and connecting aisles. One of the tents displayed a three-sided rock-climbing wall. The structures were side by side and it was the smaller one that collapsed. Lots near the tents were given over to parking space for attendees.

"On the southwest part of the collapsed structure there were people under the tent," Dale said. "Our biggest problem on the incident was that we had so many walking wounded coming at us from all directions. Many people self-extricated. Our first job was to triage. Propane tanks one-half block south of the incident were leaking. They were quickly stabilized." The leak occurred at the Salt Palace that was subsequently evacuated.

Every available paramedic was enroute. The lobby of the Wyndham Hotel was cleared of glass and used as a triage center. Several things were happening almost simultaneously. Hazmat teams were used with search and rescue while 20 ambulances (80 personnel) arrived on the scene. The area had been showered with broken glass from the hotel that also lost six vent covers from the roof and canvas-like roof membrane. Trees were down and miscellaneous objects, large and small and all of them potentially deadly missiles, had been thrown through the air.

The injured were mostly ambulatory and suffered from cuts, scrapes, bruises and fractures. Some left by car, some walked away and some went to local hospitals later. Sixty-one people were transported by EMS ground units and two were medivaced by helicopter. Utah Transit Authority buses were also pressed into service.

Rocky Mountain Search and Rescue Dog, the canine representative for Salt Lake Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1, also was called in. Nancy Hachmeister, call-out coordinator, said, "I just got back from lunch and was in my office - we're a block away from the Delta Canter - when I saw the tornado coming straight toward me. Transformers were blowing at the Delta Center. The dogs were 10 minutes away at my house. I was on the scene with the dogs between 2 and 2:30 P.M. We got right through. We were diverted (by police) around downed trees.

"We use 20 dogs: German shepherds, border collies, mixes, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, rottweilers and one weimaraner. The dogs are off-lead all the time and are used to working in an unstable environment. The dogs are multi-trained because we never know when someone is alive or dead. On 'live' (command), when the dogs are looking for a live person, they bark a lot. On 'non-live' they're more passive. They'll sit down, paw the immediate area, you can tell the difference in the body language of the dog … We had at least five minor hits. The fire department cut holes in the plywood flooring so the dogs could get through. They're also multi-trained for avalanches, wilderness rescues, water, tracking, trailing, and evidence. We worked for 11/2 hours on non-live passes and 30 minutes on live passes."

A Close Call

Captain Jeff Spencer of Rescue Engine 2 also had a close brush with the tornado.

"We were enroute to another call and passed the tornado," he said. "We thought it was a dust devil. We were driving through downed tree limbs. There were a lot of damaged buildings. The tornado had already hit in the western part of the city. When we saw it, we were a block away, heading west as it was heading east. At that time, we had no reports of damage. We knew something was happening downtown …

"The city streets were hard to get through. Roads were closed off by police. There was traffic trying to get everywhere. There was a heavy police presence. Later, we tried to respond to a call and all of the downtown area was closed. City workers on heavy loaders were clearing up tree limbs, primarily sycamore and pine trees. Late at night, things slowed down."

Hoffman recalled that "cars were blown all over the road. Every one of them was damaged. Broken glass, a lot of it from the Delta Center, was everywhere. Trees and power line poles were down. There were live wires on the ground. Engine 1 was on the scene 15 to 20 seconds before we were, but couldn't get to the scene as fast because of all the debris. They backed their way in."

He added, "We took the Light Rail tracks." (Light Rail is an aboveground transportation system. The tracks are embedded in the streets.) "The system isn't built yet, but the tracks are in and we used them. People don't drive on them, so they were clear.

"We were the first ones into the tent. People were lying everywhere. Captain Goudy set up an interior sector and we did initial triage, prepped people for transport and cut debris. The tent builders (the company that erects the tents for this and other trade shows) came in and used forklifts to shore up the tent. We did some shoring, using aluminum I beams and wood from the tent. Then we went in."

The immediate tent area was also littered with remains of wooden shipping crates, sample merchandise and display cases. Rocky Mountain Search and Rescue Dog was also active at this time. Police were blocking off streets, diverting traffic, ambulances were on the scene that was strewn with debris, and helicopters were landing and taking off.

One person sought refuge under a semi-trailer that the tornado promptly blew over on him, breaking both his legs. Members of Engine 2 found the man inside the tent in a "frog" position, presumably trying to protect himself. He was pronounced dead at the scene. It was the first tornado-related death in the state's history.

"We were on the scene for around two hours," Hoffman said. "We did damage assessment on the other avenues and got back to the station at 7:30 P.M."

Planning Pays Off

Fire Chief Don Berry said, "The planning we've done for other types of major emergencies also paid off on this one." Berry explained that during one year the department's emergency management training will focus on earthquakes for example; in another year, the focus might be on terrorism or swift water rescue.

Captain Devon Villa, PIO, added, "Our officers are task oriented. The mayor was brought into the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) and we went to a unified command. We were the lead agency. Securing the buildings became a primary objective."

The request for mutual aid went out at 1 P.M. Captain William C. Brass of the Salt Lake County Fire Department said, "We sent four engines, two trucks and two paramedics into the downtown area. We went to the scene and also filled empty city stations in the downtown area. In addition, two rescues and four engine companies also responded. They were put under the command of Salt Lake City. (The 328-person county department protects 700,000 people living in an unincorporated county of 550 square miles.)

"Our role was one of support for the city. We're the link between the city and the state. The chronology is the city declares a disaster, followed by the county and the state. The city was declared a disaster within two hours. Taylorsville, Draper, Riverton, West Valley, South Salt Lake, Harriman and seven other cities have contracts with the city to provide paramedics."

Lightning struck LDS (Latter-Day Saints) Hospital, causing a loss of some communications. When power was knocked out in the area, the hospital relied on a backup generator for several hours. In addition, trees and other debris thrown by the twister blocked access to the hospital.

Patients were taken to other facilities, including Salt Lake Regional Medical Center, University Hospital (which converted a hallway into a makeshift trauma center), St. Mark's Hospital in the county, and Pioneer Valley Hospital in West Valley City, which treated a woman who was struck by a flying roof.

"At 1:30, we activated our EO (Emergency Operations) plan and coordinated with other rescue units," Brass said. "We're mandated to open our EO center in the event of an emergency."

Goudy said, "The tents run east to west. Battalion 1 arrived and set up command. There were two triage centers. The reason was we had so many walking wounded. We were inundated with people calling for help. My crew and off-duty police officers did a quick primary search of occupancy to determine if there were any victims unaccounted for. Then we did a thorough secondary search using lights. I went 50 feet into the tent after triage had been set up. My crew found and freed the fatality. In Salt Lake City our protocol states that we do not work on traumatic full arrest.

"My other two crew members and I started to organize. Security for events like the show is often provided by off-duty Salt Lake police officers. I called out for team leaders and they worked with my crew. People who weren't hurt were asked to leave the area. The police secured the perimeter.

"In the beginning, there was lots of rain, lightning strikes and it stayed very dark. Sectors were organized into the Delta Center, Wyndham, Wyndham triage, northern search and rescue in the tent area, and two transportation sectors, one for the ambulances and helicopters, the other for treatment. I later heard that the local media put out a call and off-duty firefighters responded from all over the county. We needed to get people to search out other affected areas."

Next on the twister's hit list was the new Assembly Building being built by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Although 800 construction workers were at the site directly south of the Mormon Tabernacle, there were only two reported injuries. (There is much construction in the city preparatory to the 2002 Winter Olympics.) One 200-foot crane was broken by the tornado.

Veering to the north by northeast, the tornado skirted the southern side of the Capitol, toppling dozens of trees but leaving the dome-topped structure unscathed.

"We left the Delta scene and went to the Capitol Hills area (several blocks to the northeast) where we established Hillside command," Goudy said. "Three units were assigned to do a search. There was a lot of damage. When we arrived on the scene, we saw a four-story apartment building that had large shards of glass flapping on its exterior.

"The newer buildings have strict codes for wind shear. They make a big difference in terms of a structure being able to withstand winds. Wood-frame houses, your standard truss roof, will rock and roll, but they'll stand up. Older houses lost their roofs. If trusses were tied to roofs, i.e., hurricane straps, houses can sustain winds better.

"An apartment building had its brick parapet walls blown over. The winds snapped trees that were 21 inches in diameter. Pine trees, oaks and cottonwoods were all blown down. We went door to door, marking each building with an X, meaning it had been searched.

"I walked through a backyard, looking down a driveway. Trees were toppled. I saw what appeared to be a structure of some sort. It was a garage in which two cars had been pancaked. Their wheels were broken. I knelt down. The opening was about a foot and a half high at the eave of the garage. From the top of the cars to the cement floor was about 31/2 feet. Also, while I was in the Capitol Hills area a man told me a two-inch twig had gone through his roof."

Pitching In

By constantly practicing for disasters that are likely to happen, the Salt Lake City Fire Department minimized the damage from a disaster that wasn't supposed to happen.

A proactive, organized citizenry was a valuable resource. By extension it became a departmental asset that did much to alleviate the feeling of helplessness that often adversely affects survivors of natural disasters.

Michael Garlock is a Florida- and New York-based freelance writer specializing in fire service response to major storms.