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.
To support the load of the C-2 column by the crane, task force members core-drilled through the roof and extended cables down through the sixth and fifth floors. This step created a secondary safety sling to support a beam attached to this column. Surveyor's transits were positioned to monitor building movement.
From the third floor up, there were loose pieces of hanging concrete and content debris. Lack of access made it impossible to trim these hazards, which extended throughout the building and necessitated the creation of safety platforms. Aluminum I-beams were covered with plywood and placed on points at the ground floor to protect the rescuers working in the 12-foot basement below.
K-1200 saws were used extensively for cutting out tangled bar joists throughout the building. Hydraulic equipment was employed to break up large pieces of debris that were too large to remove by hand. When a dog alerted on an area, fiber optic cameras and searchcams were used to verify a victim's location.
The first objective was to clear the rubble from the basement, or pit, concentrating on areas where canines had alerted. Large fragments were broken in place with power or hand tools or were removed by backhoes and front-end loaders with chains. Most of the debris was cleared by hand due to the limited access for heavy equipment.
The task force was divided into two teams, which worked 12-hour shifts to provide 24-hour coverage. The search of the pit began with the Alpha shift at 7 A.M. on Nov. 22. Based on the difficulty in removing rubble to gain access to victims, heavy rains and unexpected work delays, the decision was made to activate Florida Task Force 2, which joined the operation on Nov. 24. To provide full task force strength, teams from both groups worked simultaneously on each shift.
Nine bodies were recovered from the Vidal Building and one from a separate adjacent building. An 11th was discovered but not removed because the building was too unstable.
It was discovered that the E-1 column was out of plumb and was no longer completely attached to the second-floor beam. At this point, the probability of finding live victims was zero, so the work was halted at 7 P.M. on Nov. 26.
Based on information from local officials and the building owners, from three to five persons were still missing and presumed to be in the building. The plan was to demolish the structure after covering and marking the areas where the canines had alerted. This would facilitate debris removal and victim recovery.
During the mission, the San Juan Police Department dogs concentrated on body recovery, while task force canines tackled the search for live victims. Two dogs were assigned to the Alpha and Bravo shifts, giving 24-hour coverage of canine search capabilities. The dogs covered every inch of debris within the pit and alerted in eight areas. In five of those areas, bodies were found and removed. The remaining three sections were restricted to search and recovery operations.
"Our hearts went out to the families and friends of the victims in this disaster," Metro-Dade Fire Chief Dave Paulison said, "and we were glad to help the rescuers in an effort to repay the Puerto Rican firefighters for the aid we received following Hurricane Andrew."
During this mission, Florida Task Force 1 operated in two functional shifts for the first time. Two individuals were assigned to cover each position so that teams could work around the clock. According to Castillo, "This decision proved to be very successful in such a labor-intensive situation."
The task force faced an ever-present danger of building collapse. It was determined that evaluations of such a damaged structure should be made column by column and floor by floor, and that these assessments be constantly checked. The studies also should include photos of each damaged area. In instances where adjacent buildings may have sustained collateral damage, these structures should be thoroughly searched for victims and evaluated for stability.
Metro-Dade Fire Rescue's Canine Training
All search dogs are required to master the five basic disciplines of urban search and rescue, which include obedience, agility, directability, alerting and the search. They are also trained in body recovery. This instruction begins when the dog is seven weeks old, and all training is conducted at the Metro-Dade Fire Rescue training ground. The primary objective is to locate victims in the urban search-and-rescue scenario by cutting days into hours and hours into minutes.
The canine's alert must be definitive and consistent in behavior. In locating a live victim, the dog evokes an active alert, which consists of barking and digging. A body find is communicated by a passive alert (sitting or lying down). After noting where the dog alerts, the handler spray-paints an arrow at the spot. To check the alert, technical search personnel use searchcams and fiber optics in that particular area.
LaVerne Guillen has been a public information officer with the Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Department in Florida for eight years. She has a bachelor's degree in English from Florida International University.