Florida Task Force 1 Dispatched To Scene Of Puerto Rico Blast

Laverne Guillen recounts how with the combined effort of IST, Florida Task Force 1 and regional efforts, a building explosion was handled effectively.


As the shops were opening for their weekly Thursday sale in the Rio Piedras district of San Juan on Nov. 21, 1996, an explosion ripped through the Humberto Vidal Building. Reports indicated that the 8:35 A.M. blast had killed 20 people and injured 80. More were missing. In a school across the...


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As the shops were opening for their weekly Thursday sale in the Rio Piedras district of San Juan on Nov. 21, 1996, an explosion ripped through the Humberto Vidal Building. Reports indicated that the 8:35 A.M. blast had killed 20 people and injured 80. More were missing. In a school across the street, 500 children had been spared.

President Clinton declared a federal emergency in Puerto Rico, authorizing aid for rescue and recovery. Since there were reports of people trapped in the building, the commonwealth requested Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) assistance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) activated a 21-member Incident Support Team (IST) and Florida Task Force 1.

The IST was composed of members from task forces in Florida, New York, Nebraska, Colorado and California. Its mission was to manage the incident by providing technical assistance, logistical support and advice on USAR issues to Puerto Rican officials responsible for the rescue scene. Seven people from Florida Task Force 1 were assigned to the team, with Metro-Dade Assistant Chief for Operations Carlos J. Castillo as the IST Leader. They were on scene within 12 hours of the explosion.

Preliminary reports indicated the explosion occurred in the basement, possibly due to a gas leak. Work had been stopped on the building to determine whether gas leaks were present, to stabilize the structure and to clear debris from the street.

The mission priorities for the IST were to advise government officials of the capabilities, limitations and needs of the task force; identify and prepare a location for the base of operations for the incoming task force; and plan the strategy for the next operational period. The IST Logistics Section Chief was responsible for identifying and preparing the base of operations site for Florida Task Force 1.

The IST leader, along with the ESF-9 Leader (emergency support function) Steve Presgraves from FEMA headquarters, met with Civil Defense and police officials to determine the channel of communications and reporting requirements. Puerto Rico Police Superintendent Pedro Toledo was in charge of the emergency. Specific rescue operations were coordinated by a Civil Defense official on site. Battalion Chief Ray Downey from the New York City Fire Department was the IST Operations Section Chief.

Metro-Dade's 62-member task force, including doctors, structural engineers, four search-and-rescue dogs and about 50,000 pounds of equipment, arrived later that night. Its base of operations was at a school a block away from the building.

The Vidal Building contained a shoe warehouse in the basement, retail stores on the bottom three floors and offices on the upper three stories. It was constructed of reinforced concrete and steel with metal bar joists and poured concrete floors. The force of the explosion had traveled upward through the first floor and second-floor mezzanine area, causing a collapse of the first through third floors. The fourth floor was partially collapsed; the fifth and sixth stories were primarily intact.

Prior to working inside the structure, a hazmat evaluation was conducted to ensure there were no explosive levels of propane in the area. In addition, all utilities were secured.

The blast blew some vertical columns totally off beams and some partially off beams, resulting in the general instability of the structure. Extensive damage occurred to two of the major support columns, one of which required reinforcement with steel bracing. Local engineers, task force engineers and heavy-rigging specialists formulated a plan to reinforce the columns and beams.

IST Structural Specialist David Hammond, in concert with Florida Task Force 1 engineers, suggested placing a cable from the C-2 column around the elevator shaft for support (see floor plan on page 116). The slack was removed with a come-along. For further stabilization, a crane was positioned at the northwest corner of the building.

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