Search Operations At Building Explosion And Collapse

Russell T. Accardi offers a first-person report from the scene of an operation that lasted nearly six days and required numerous specialized units.


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...


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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.

10_97_rescue1.jpg
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.

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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."

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