Flight 965: Challenges Of The Search

In the mountains of Colombia just outside the city of Buga, American Airlines Flight 965 smashed into Cerro San Jose at approximately 9:45 P.M. on Dec. 20, 1995. The aircraft, a Boeing 757, was traveling from Miami to Cali, Colombia, with 164 persons on board (156 passengers and eight crew members). After the accident, five survivors were rescued but one later died in a hospital. The remaining 160 people died.

Photo courtesy of Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Urban Search and Rescue Team
A Colombian rescue crew joins Metro-Dade Fire Rescue's Urban Search and Rescue team in covering an area near a portion of the jet's fuselage.

Prior to this disaster, the Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Department's Special Operations Division had met with American Airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Dade County Aviation Department to discuss a response plan for aircraft accidents in Central America and the Caribbean region. Even though a plan had not been formalized, Metro-Dade Fire Rescue's Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team responded to Buga at the request of American Airlines.

The USAR team was activated on Dec. 23, 1995. The team's composition and size were based on the limited scope of the mission, logistical support from American Airlines and the assumption that the team would train local personnel to use the equipment.

The team consisted of a task force leader, a rescue squad officer, four rescue specialists, a logistics/communications specialist and a medic/safety specialist. All members were paramedics and cross-trained in team functions.

Team members and equipment arrived at Cali International Airport at 11 P.M. local time. The equipment cache was secured in a cargo shed at the airport, and the team was deployed to Buga the following morning, Dec. 24, via helicopter.

The recovery operation was based at the Palace Artillery Battalion Base in Buga, where airline representatives briefed the team on the work accomplished to date, site access and security precautions in effect. Helicopters were being used to ferry bodies to Buga's temporary morgue.

Photo courtesy of Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Urban Search and Rescue Team
Metro-Dade Fire Rescue crew members assist Buga firefighters in rigging a rope system to move large pieces of wreckage.

The initial impact of the plane was on the east side of Cerro San Jose (ridge) approximately 250 feet below the summit (elevation 9,200 feet), with wreckage from the aft section strewn from that point to the summit. The balance of the fuselage was spread on the west side of the ridge from the summit to an 8,500-foot elevation. The main cabin, where most victims had been recovered, was at this altitude. Four bodies were still missing and feared trapped under large sections of the fuselage.

The Buga base was located at 3,200 feet, and the forward base was in a farm at the base of the ridge at 7,900 feet. There were only two ways to reach the forward base from Buga a helicopter could make a five-minute trip in good weather but the forward base was in a valley often covered by clouds. The alternative was a 21/2-hour drive by truck up the mountainside on a winding dirt road.

Once the forward base area was reached, access to the plane's main cabin was by helicopter to an improvised landing zone at the summit of the ridge and a 700-foot walk down a steep, muddy rain forest (taking 45 minutes to one hour) or by foot climbing 600 feet through the same environment. The latter took from 11/2 to three hours, depending on altitude acclimatization. The only means of descent from the crash site back to the base camp was on foot.

Security Concerns

Because the area of the crash site is a guerrilla activity zone, a heavy Colombian military presence was required. No overnight stays were allowed at the crash site or at the base camp. All personnel were restricted to road travel during daylight hours.

Although travel between the Buga base and the forward base was normally via helicopter, bad weather often barred use of the aircraft in the afternoon. To allow enough time for distance and terrain when land travel was necessary, descent from the crash site to the forward base had to begin by 3 P.M. The second leg of land travel had to begin by 4:30 to arrive at the Buga base before nightfall.

Photo courtesy of Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Urban Search and Rescue Team
Search dog Aspen and handler Firefighter Skip Fernandez investigate the plane's passenger area.

At a meeting on Dec. 24, the team learned that the Colombian military would no longer provide security or air support for the USAR team. Arrangements were made for the military to keep its support in place on Dec. 25, and it was determined that the team should continue the search for one more day.

On Christmas Day, the equipment cache was relocated from Buga to the forward base. While the cache was being prepared to be carried as a helicopter sling load to the main crash site, team members were supposed to be airlifted to the ridge landing zone. If they were to find the ridge weathered in, their alternate plan included rappelling from the helicopter to the site. During preparation for the airlift, however, the only available helicopter was diverted to evacuate a soldier bitten by a poisonous snake. The team medic and a rescue specialist were sent with the helicopter to render medical assistance.

The weather deteriorated, and the helicopter was unable to return to the forward base. The remainder of the team waited there for the weather to clear but conditions never improved enough to pilot a helicopter to the forward base. At 1 P.M., the team was told that there was an urgent need to explore a section of the main fuselage for one of the missing bodies, and tools were needed. A K-12 saw was sent on foot with four team members and six Buga volunteer firefighters.

The USAR team and Buga volunteers made many cuts to the fuselage and determined that no bodies were trapped under the investigated sections. A decision was made to discontinue operations and demobilize. One K-12 saw was donated to the Buga volunteers, since they were familiar enough with the equipment to work on their own. The team returned to Miami on Dec. 27.

A Second Call

Late on Jan. 1, 1996, American Airlines again asked for the USAR team's assistance, this time to help find the last missing crash victim, an 8-year-old boy. Due to the canine team's involvement in Oklahoma City, the team was asked to include search dogs and handlers to assist in the recovery.

Photo courtesy of Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Urban Search and Rescue Team
Captain Gary Richard sifts through the wreckage of the plane's passenger area.

A team consisting of a task force leader, a rescue squad officer, three canine handlers, two search canines, two rescue specialists, a logistics/communications specialist and a medic/safety specialist was sent to Cali on Jan. 3. (The task force leader, rescue squad officer and one of the rescue specialists had responded on the previous mission.) Arrangements were made for the Buga volunteer firefighters to again work alongside the USAR team. Team members arrived in Cali at 8 P.M. and were sent to Buga the following morning.

Back To Buga

To transport the team, American Airlines had contracted two aircraft: a Russian-made MI-17 medium-lift helicopter and a Bell 204. On Jan. 4, team members and equipment were taken directly to the forward base, where they were joined by seven Buga volunteers.

Objectives were to reach the crash site and pinpoint the location of the missing body. The search team was to be taken by helicopter to the top of the ridge to investigate all accessible areas of the crash site.

Photo courtesy of Metro-Dade Fire Rescue Urban Search and Rescue Team
Crew members unearth a large piece of the fuselage using come-alongs and chains.

Following its fifth flight in ferrying the team, the helicopter was involved in an accident. After discharging team members, the pilot lifted the aircraft, lost control and crashed in an upright position. No one was hurt but the helicopter was damaged and could not be flown. Thus, the landing zone was blocked and out of service.

Although three Buga volunteers remained at forward base, a decision was made to proceed with the search as planned. All accessible and probable sites on both the east and west sides of the ridge were explored.

A major obstacle and hazard for the dogs during the search was the presence of aviation hydraulic fluid which had soaked into the ground. This corrosive fluid irritated the dogs' feet. After decontamination of the dogs' paws, booties were placed on them to decrease exposure to the substance.

The canine search cleared most of the crash site. The dogs had alerted their handlers to the area containing the largest pieces of fuselage, where most of the bodies already had been found, and to an adjacent pile of debris. The fuselage area still contained body fluids and small body parts, making it difficult for the dogs to pinpoint the location of the victim. Since not all fuselage pieces had been searched beneath, and the debris pile had been formed by previous searchers, those spots needed further investigation. By 3:30 P.M., the team began its descent.

Objectives for Jan. 5 were again just to reach the site and let the dogs search underneath the large pieces of fuselage by cutting and moving those sections. As the team was making its ascent, the missing boy's father also was attempting a climb to the crash site but was sent back.

For the rest of the day, the team members worked on the main cabin site, where they moved several large pieces of the fuselage and the main landing gear. As in the first mission, the work was combined with instructing the Buga volunteers in the use of a hydraulic rescue tool, come-alongs and rope-and-pulley systems. The search dogs located some body parts, which were released to the medical examiner, and continued to alert their handlers in the plane's cockpit and first-class sections and in the area of the debris pile.

Due to time constraints, the team had to leave the main cabin site before all sections of the fuselage were checked. It was determined that the team would need at least one additional day to clear this area. Therefore, the extrication equipment was secured at the main fuselage site under military guard before the team descended.

By now, the team believed this could become an open-ended mission if the boy's body was not found under the wing, first-class or cockpit sections. Team members also believed that the Buga volunteers had become familiar enough with extrication equipment and techniques to continue the search, so it was decided that the USAR team would work its final shift the following day.

The Search Ends

The entire search team traveled by helicopter the next day from Buga base to the forward base. The team members again climbed on foot to the main fuselage site. They moved various sections of the main fuselage but again ran out of time before all pieces were moved. Nothing was found but the exposed ground obviously had not been searched before, and the canines continued to alert in the area.

Before the team left, some extrication equipment and a hydraulic rescue tool were donated to the Buga volunteer firefighters to enable them to continue the search on their own. The USAR team returned to Cali on Jan. 6, where it remained for a day to prepare for transport back to Miami.

The boy's body was found several days later at the crash site under a pile of debris. The discovery was made in the vicinity of an area where the search dogs had alerted their handlers.

For this mission, Metro-Dade Fire Rescue organized and deployed a task element (small group with individual disciplines).

"The strategy worked well," Metro-Dade Fire Chief Dave Paulison said, "and demonstrated that we can quickly reorganize into a task element and respond to virtually any kind of scenario."

Captain Rick Garcia, the task force leader for both responses, said, "It was challenging and difficult for a small team to work outside of a support system such as the incident command system and outside the direction of an Incident Support Team or Disaster Assistance Response Team, as we are accustomed. This mission required organizational and coordination skills at a level normally not found in small-team responses."

Said Paulison, "Our team members had to respond to one of the most difficult scenes for emergency workers. They knew at the time of deployment that there were no survivors to rescue."

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.