Search Operations At Building Explosion And Collapse

In the early-morning hours of Nov. 21, 1996, an explosion rocked the Humberto Vidal building in the commercial district of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Adjacent buildings sustained heavy structural damage and the blast, believed caused by propane gas, left the Vidal building severely damaged.

Photo by Stephen McInerny II
A crane is used to help support the damaged Humberto Vidal building. Nearby is some of the large steel bracing that helped prevent further collapse.

The explosion occurred at approximately 8:30 A.M. in a building that was occupied by retail stores on the first three floors and general office space on floors four, five and six. The basement was reportedly occupied by a shoe warehouse; this would eventually complicate the search efforts.

At the time of the blast, the building was most likely occupied by the employees of these businesses who were just arriving to work. It is believed that if the explosion had occurred just 30 minutes later, the building would have been occupied by several hundred people, adding to the magnitude of the incident.

Initial Call For Help

The blast left 18 people dead, 80 people injured and at least 30 people missing. After receiving a request for federal assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) dispatched a 21-member Incident Support Team (IST) and a 62-member Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force. FEMA Director James Lee Witt said the action was authorized by President Clinton under an emergency declaration issued immediately after receiving the commonwealth's expedited request for federal assistance.

The 21-member IST sent was composed of four members from South Florida Task Force 2 (FL-TF 2), seven from Metro-Dade (FL-TF 1) and the remainder from the national USAR system, including members from New York City; Denver; Lincoln, NE; Los Angeles and Sacramento, CA; and Washington, D.C.

The IST leaders realized that because of the labor-intensive nature of the search and rescue operations, which involved shoring and bracing of many portions of the building, it would require a second task force to expedite this time-consuming operation. FL-TF 2 was deployed to join operations with FL-TF 1.

Mobilizing The Team

The FL-TF 2 assembly point is at the City of Miami Fire Training Center, where the team keeps its three box trailers and one tractor ready to deliver the team's 50,000 pounds of equipment to the point of departure. On this activation, the team was to depart from the Homestead Air Reserve Base. Since the team had been deployed to Atlanta for standby at the summer Olympic Games in Atlanta in July 1996, we were able to repeat the process and be at the same point of departure before a C-141 military transport was on the ground.

Photo by Stephen McInerny II
South Florida Task Force 2's canine, a chocolate Labrador named "Hershey," exits the basement area using a makeshift wooden ramp.

As soon as we arrived in Puerto Rico, we were transported to the Vidal building. After reaching the collapse site and having all of the pallets of equipment unloaded, a base of operations was set up for FL-TF 2 located behind a church that faced the Vidal building. FL-TF 2 Task Force Leaders John Gilbert and Steve Fisher were briefed by the IST leaders upon arrival. A briefing was then conducted to update the task force on operations in progress. We immediately split the 62-member task force into an Alpha shift (working from 7:30 A.M. to 7:30 P.M.) and Bravo shift (7:30 P.M. to 7:30 A.M.). The Alpha shift went right to work as the Bravo shift rested until its scheduled work cycle began.

Building Conditions

"As we approached the building for the first time, I was struck by the similarities to the Murrah building in the Oklahoma City bombing, where the floors were blown upward and collapsed back down into piles of rubble in the basement," said Lieutenant Pete Smalley, City of Miami Fire Rescue and the coordinator of FL-TF 2. "The sights and smell reminded me of the Oklahoma City incident."

The Vidal building was shown to have concrete columns and both concrete and steel beams. The floor was steel bar joist with lath and concrete deck in the lower levels, steel decking and concrete throughout the upper levels of the building. The first, second, third and fourth floors were completely missing because of the explosion, and the debris had fallen into the basement.

Some vertical columns were completely detached from their beams, while some were left partially attached, creating a significantly weakened structure. Two of the main support columns received extensive damage, requiring the structural engineers to devise a plan to have large steel beams brought in and brace that side of the building as shown in the photos. A 12-ton crane was also used to hold part of the building up by wrapping two-inch cable down through the fifth and sixth floors.

Although this was a dangerous building to operate in, it was reassuring to know that we had the expertise of many specialists concentrating on making it as safe as possible. The structural engineers continuously checked all bracing and closely monitored the building for movements with the use of transits set at different sides of the building. Structural engineer David Hammond, an IST member from CA-TF 3 (Menlo Park), is considered to be one of the most knowledgeable in his field because of his background in earthquake disasters, as well as the Oklahoma City bombing. IST member John O'Connell, a firefighter from FDNY Rescue Company 3 (NY-TF 1), a nationally known authority on emergency shoring, worked along with Hammond to devise a plan to shore the Murrah building, which became known as "the forest" due to the number of timbers used. These two again combined their expertise to prevent a building from coming down on rescuers, this time in Puerto Rico. Also lending strength to the rescue/recovery effort, was FDNY Battalion Chief Ray Downey (NY-TF 1) with years of experience in building collapses. He was the IST Operations section chief.

Photo by Stephen McInerny II
Members of South Florida Task Force 2 gather for an operational briefing.

Debris Removal

Before any of the USAR personnel arrived, all surface and lightly trapped victims had been removed by local authorities. Makeshift ramps were constructed to permit access to the basement area or "pit" from the first-floor level. Both FL-TF 1 and FL-TF 2 members were operating in the basement, performing the tedious job of rubble removal using five-gallon buckets and a human chain made up of local civil defense, law enforcement and volunteer rescuers. This painstakingly slow process was allowing only two vertical feet per 12-hour shift to be removed.

Once we were assigned a section of the building, we had our canines walk through the rubble in the pit to verify previous alerts from other canines. We indicated new alerts by using the USAR marking system with international orange spray paint.

The two rescue squads working the Alpha shift were assigned a specific area for debris removal where the canines had alerted. This was accomplished by using heavy-duty hydraulic tools, as well as several small hand tools which worked well in the limited work space of the pit.

Unlike building collapses that take down exterior walls and roofs, the inside core of this building fell to the basement following the explosion. This did not permit the use of heavy equipment for debris removal. With the exterior frame of the building still in place (although it was badly damaged), we were able to utilize only a backhoe to backup as close as possible to the building and extend the bucket towards the pit. This was used to attach chains to sections of the steel bar joists that were left twisted throughout the rubble and pulled them out in small pieces after cutting the other end with K-12 saws.

One of our biggest concerns was the constant threat of debris dangling precariously overhead from the ceiling, five and six floors above our heads. Items such as sections of reinforced concrete columns hanging only by a piece of rebar or office furniture blown upwards and into the ceiling were continuously monitored and removed when possible.

Overhead protection for the pit was installed by placing aluminum beams 12 inches on center across the first-floor level with two layers of three-quarter-inch plywood decking. The deck was probably responsible for saving lives as it did sustain some hits from falling debris.

Photo by Stephen McInerny II
The task of removing debris was tedious but the assembly line formed between USAR members and Puerto Rican officials helped expedite the clearing of the basement areas.

Search Techniques

The technical search specialists went right to work using technical search equipment, such as the Searchcam cameras. This enabled team members to search below concrete slabs through two-inch-diameter holes, saving valuable time in eliminating possible voids. A fiber-optic camera was also used to remotely search small cracks and openings in the rubble. Some of these areas were not accessible to searchers since they had been deemed hazardous.

It had become obvious that due to the force of the explosion and the remaining size of the floor pieces in the rubble pile, we would not be removing anyone else alive. However, the job was still not finished, because of the number of victims still reported missing. Also complicating the search, as mentioned earlier, were the hundreds of shoes found in the debris from the shoe warehouse. Every time I grabbed a shoe sticking out of the rubble, I had to look inside of it. Many of the shoes were children's sizes and I just prayed there would be a price tag on each of them. The rescue squads were still locating victims, digging them out by hand tools, but most were severely crushed by the debris and didn't have a chance of surviving.

The search areas were narrowed down significantly by some of the USAR canines that have been trained in alerting for deceased persons as well as live victims. These dogs are given different commands by their handlers to differentiate alerting for cadavers as compared to alerting for live victims. The canines earned a lot of respect by all rescuers as being valuable members of the team, because of the countless hours of searching time they saved during this mission. All victims located were found by canine alerts. This is an impressive statistic. The Puerto Rican police canines and USAR canines seemed to alert in many of the same areas, which helped in verifying spots to commit searchers.

Locating The Last Victim

The rescue squads with all their personnel, were busy digging using power tools and five-gallon bucket brigades to bring the last section of the basement to the floor level. At this point, 10 victims had been unburied and removed by USAR personnel from both task forces.

We had been hearing the engineers discussing the stability of the building and the consideration of halting the search operation due to continued movement and shifting. We decided to bring Canine Specialist Kim Lark with "Hershey," a chocolate Labrador, trained for cadaver and live victim searches, into a particular area in which the Puerto Rican police canines had been showing interest. We did not work Hershey secured to a leash, directing him to areas we wanted searched, as the Puerto Rican police had done with theirs. Instead, we let Hershey go and show us areas where he was most interested. The spot was around the D1 column, which supported that section of the building from the basement to the sixth floor.

The extent of damage to this column was of great concern. Three of us on the search team started digging, equipped only with our hands and some small gardening shovels. We had confidence in Hershey, because of the fact that someone was found in every spot he had alerted up to this point. The question was, were we in the right spot at the base of the column?

We had constant communication with the FL-TF 2 Alpha shift safety officer, Captain Frank Warren, who was doing his best to stay in view of where we were operating because of the dangerous location. After nearly two hours of digging and removing debris by hand, we reached the point that from laying flat on our stomachs we could dig no deeper.

Suddenly, we located something that appeared different than the other material we had been removing. This material was the clothing of the last casualty found by USAR task forces at this horrendous explosion site. This victim was trapped by tons of concrete exposing only the torso and would have to be removed at a later time. The victim's location was documented and marked on the column so they could be found later.

Final Evacuation

On the evening of Nov. 26, FL-TF 2 Engineer Jeff Crews discovered that column E1 was out of plumb at the second level and had pulled out from the column above, which resulted in the final evacuation of the building. FEMA IST members met with the Puerto Rican government officials to advise them that we were discontinuing the search operations because of the unsafe conditions that had developed. All search operations ceased at 11 P.M., nearly six days after the intense search operations began.

In the end, the USAR task forces, along with the local authorities of Puerto Rico, extricated 10 people and located an 11th victim at the base of the D1 column. There were also areas identified as possible victim locations which were left marked. After the building was razed by implosion, these marked areas were searched for possible recovery.

When asked what was one of the biggest challenges for the USAR teams on this deployment, IST member Chief Steve Abraira said, "One of the most challenging aspects was integrating the USAR search efforts with the existing efforts already taking place by the myriad of local agencies." One of the most helpful conditions on this deployment was the fact that both Florida task forces had many bilingual members, making communication much easier with the local agencies.


  • 10 bodies extricated
  • Remains of an 11th person located and marked
  • 30 confirmed fatalities
  • 85 people reported injured

Data on final casualties supplied by FEMA at time of USAR task forces' departure from Puerto Rico.

Russell T. Accardi is a lieutenant and special operations coordinator for the City of Delray Beach, FL, Fire Department. He is a lead instructor with the South Tech Fire Academy in Palm Beach County, FL, where he teaches courses in many disciplines of specialized response. Accardi is also a member of the South Florida FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 2 in Miami, where he is a search team manager.