9/11 @ The Pentagon: A Creative Solution to the Structural Collapse Hazard

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

We were at a standstill, and if we couldn’t come up with a solution to shore up that part of the structure,” Tim Robson recalls, “we’d be sending our people into a much riskier situation. In fact, some areas were so dangerous, we had to start thinking about things like, “Who’s not married?” and “Who doesn’t have kids?” It was awful, but it was something we had to think about.”     

911 Never Forget

On September 12, 2001, Tim Robson was sent to the Pentagon with his FEMA Urban Search and Rescue New Mexico Task Force 1 team. Their objectives were to search for survivors, recover victims, structurally stabilize the damaged area of the building, and locate several safes containing classified documents. Because the site was a crime scene, they also had to document and preserve key pieces of information for the FBI 

Tim’s team began their work in the rubble on the edges of the impact zone, but they quickly reached the area where the building hadn’t completely collapsed. It was inside the building where there was the highest probability of finding survivors, but it was also too dangerous to send rescuers into these overhead environments before stabilizing the structure. The building had already suffered pancake and lean-to collapses in the hours after initial impact. Extreme heat from the explosion and burning jet fuel weakened the building’s support columns. This created an extraordinarily hazardous environment for the search and rescue teams.  

“The left side of the impact zone, on the outermost ring of the Pentagon – part of that wall was actually moving,” Tim recalls. “The loads were so great any movement was very hazardous. It was definitely stressful. But we were extremely task-oriented and we wanted to get the job done and get out of there.” 

The textbook approach to stabilizing a heavy building with extensive structural damage like this was to stack 6x6 timbers in a box around each damaged column. “It’s just like stacking Lincoln Logs,” explains Tim. This provides a very strong and stable support structure in case the column fails.  

However, it only works if there’s something substantial overhead for the stacked timbers to support, and in the case of several weakened columns on the outer edge of the building, the ceiling didn’t exist all the way around the columns.  

The team put their heads together to come up with alternative solutions and workarounds, but nobody was very comfortable with any of the ideas floated. Tim knew that the stacked timbers approach derived its strength from the joints at the corners where the timbers overlapped. With that principle in mind, Tim came up with the idea to connect two boxes of stacked timbers together by using longer timbers on one edge of each box and overlapping those longer timbers.  

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“I stacked some pencils together to show what I was thinking,” Tim says, “and the engineers did some quick math and said, ‘Heck yeah, let’s run with this.’ It was not something anyone on the team had ever seen before, but when we all thought about the support it would provide, it just made sense.”    

This improvised solution greatly reduced the risk of the building collapsing while rescuers were inside, and the team was able to get on with their very difficult search and recovery tasks.  

There are several takeaways here. Let’s never forget the courage of our search and rescue team members in the aftermath of September 11th - they willingly ventured into hazardous territory and subjected themselves to the possibility of a follow-on terrorist attack, airborne toxins, and exposure to mass carnage. For this, they have our eternal gratitude and respect.  

L Crib FrontThe learning takeaway for rescuers is to deepen your knowledge. Because no two rescue situations are exactly alike, a rescuer who understands the principles (the “why”) will be much more effective than one who just memorizes procedures (the “how”). In a dynamic situation, the “textbook approach” may not offer a solution, so understanding the key principles allows you to adapt what you know to the specific situation. Creative solutions exist everywhere. This is a great example of how a thorough understanding of the principles spawned a creative solution to a difficult problem.  

After the mission was over, Tim’s creative technique became part of the operational procedures for FEMA’s search and rescue teams going forward. And ultimately, nobody was haunted by the decisions that were made about who to send into the building to do the work. Special thanks to Tim Robson and to everyone who took risks and made sacrifices to help others after September 11.  

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Tim Robson is a chief instructor and the New Mexico CSRT Director for Roco Rescue, Inc. As a chief instructor, he teaches a wide variety of technical rescue classes and has been instrumental in the development of our Trench & Structural Collapse Rescue programs. In his role as a CSRT Director, he leads our on-site rescue and safety services, which includes standby rescue, confined space program management, leading safety meetings and more. Prior to joining Roco in 1996, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Rescue Diver/Swimmer, at the Albuquerque Fire Department, and as a Rescue Squad Officer for FEMA’s New Mexico Task Force 1.

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Roco CASEVAC II for Tactical Team Members

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Roco CASEVAC II for Tactical Team MembersCrank It Up a Notch with Roco’s CASEVAC II Training

It has been an honor for us to expand our support of our nation’s heroes to the greater SOCOM community. When we developed the TCCC CASEVAC Extraction kits and subsequent training, our goal was to assist operators around the world in saving the lives of their buddies in need. While SOCOM did a commendable job in bridging a broad capabilities gap with the CASEVAC Set, a training gap still exists for more advanced extraction training.

Roco trained over 700 operators within all four branches of our military during the time we offered NET courses at the Roco Training Center. Now that this training and equipment has been used in the field for a few years, we would like to propose the following questions:

  • When was the last time you practiced the skills learned in the NET course?

    Or, broke out the Micro RIES® and built a haul system?

    Or, the last time you lifted a vehicle or debris using the lift bags?

    What about the skills that the NET course didn’t cover?

Now is the time to take it to the next level with Roco’s CASEVAC Extraction Level II. This course builds upon the foundation of the skills offered in the NET course and gives operators a few more ways to get the job done.
Roco CASEVAC II for Tactical Team MembersThe beauty of these “rescue” skills is that most of them can be applied to everyday missions outside of the context of rescue. If you can haul Mongo onto a roof while he’s packaged in a Sked litter, then you can definitely haul up some equipment. If you can rappel into a well to save a fallen teammate and ascend back out, then you can access and bail out of OPs more quickly, safely, and efficiently. Lifting and extrication tools and techniques can be applied to SSE as well as rescue.

We’d like to invite you to help drive the curriculum of this course. Roco will be holding two (2) pilot courses in order to validate the curriculum we’ve developed. A detailed description is located at our Tactical Courses page. Your feedback will help determine which skills are vital to include.
Not currently under SOCOM’s umbrella? No worries. While this course was designed with the CASEVAC Set of equipment in mind, the principles apply universally.
Since equipment changes, we focus on the principles. In this course, we start from the ground up, refreshing things covered in NET, and using equipment from the CASEVAC Set as well as gear that is used by other SOF units around the world. By using several variations of equipment, you’ll gain higher proficiency and be able to use your team’s equipment more effectively, whether it’s the CASEVAC Set or not.
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Gravedigger Engulfed In Cave-in of Unguarded Grave

Monday, January 04, 2016
Gravedigger Engulfed In Cave-in of Unguarded Grave“A Trench is a Trench is a Trench”

An employee of a cemetery in Farmingdale, New York, was seriously injured on May 7, 2015, when the walls of the grave opening in which he was working collapsed and buried him up to his waist.

An inspection by the Long Island Area Office of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that the excavation and its support systems lacked adequate protection against cave-ins and the excavation had not been inspected to identify such deficiencies. Other hazards included damaged equipment and the placement of excavated soil on the edge of the unprotected trench. These conditions exposed employees to the hazards of cave-in, engulfment and struck-by injuries.

This worker literally came close to an early grave because the cemetery failed to provide proper excavation protections. 

“This cave-in could have been prevented if proper and legally required trenching safety procedures had been followed by the employer,” said Anthony Ciuffo, OSHA’s Long island (NY) area director. “It is imperative that cemeteries ensure that workers at all its cemeteries are protected against cave-in hazards and ensure that an incident such as this does not happen again in the future.”

OSHA cited the company on Nov. 5, 2015, for two willful and three serious violations of workplace safety standards.

Roco Comments from Dennis O’Connell, Director of Training:

You may think of this is an unusual circumstance, a once in a lifetime event. Sorry, but you’re wrong. During my tenure as a rescuer in NYC, I responded to a number of these jobs, and they present some additional hazards that are not associated with most trench rescue jobs.

You can call it what you want, but a grave is a trench. And the location can make a big difference in terms of hazards presented. For example, I have a house in NY and one in Louisiana – in South Louisiana, we try to bury people above ground, if possible! However, in places like NY, cemetery space is so limited. It’s like high-rises in the city, our cemetery family plots bury multiple family members usually 3 on top of the other, which is referred to as a triple depth grave. This pushes the grave depth to about 8 feet for the first entombment.

So, no matter what you call it – a trench is a trench, and we need to follow OSHA 1926.651-652 requirements for protecting workers. Let’s look at some of the grave/trench basics before we move on to the specific grave hazard. If we dig an excavation that is longer than it is wide, it is a considered a trench – if it is 4’ or deeper, you need to have a ladder or other means of egress for workers; if it is 5’ or deeper, you need to install a protective system.

You must have a Competent Person, as defined by OSHA, to determine what system is adequate and that it is installed properly. They must also inspect the trench and surrounding area for hazards before workers can enter the trench. Of course, there’s a lot more to digging a trench and the responsibilities of the competent person but you get the idea.

Also, just because a trench is only 7’ long and 3’ wide, this does not change the rules or responsibilities associated with digging a trench. If you’re digging a trench, you need to have that competent person; you need to understand the requirements of 1926.651-652; and you need to know who will respond if you have a trench emergency. Keep in mind, most municipal departments, especially volunteer departments, do not have the training or equipment to respond to a trench collapse.

Ok, the added hazard to a grave collapse rescue is the headstone at the end of the grave – depending on the size, they can weigh over 1,000lbs. If it has fallen in the grave on top of the victim, then you will need to use technical rescue techniques and equipment to lift and free the victim. If it is still on the edge, you will need to support, stabilize or remove it before rescuers can work under it. So, even an innocent grave, can be the scene of a complicated technical trench rescue.

Bottom line… if you are digging trenches for whatever reason, or you have contractors digging trenches on your property, you need to be aware of the requirements of 1926.651-652, have a “competent person,” and identify who you are going to call if a collapse happens.

FYI, you need to have 2.9 feet of soil above the casket top. Some say that it’s a public health law. Between you and me, I think it’s to keep Zombies from escaping!

Here is an OSHA fact sheet to help you better understand some of the requirements. OSHA Fact Sheet - Trenching and Excavation Safety

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Trench Collapse Fatality: Las Vegas, NM

Friday, June 03, 2011

Trench Collapse Fatality: Las Vegas, NM
What does getting struck by a pickup traveling 45 mph and being in the path of a trench wall collapse have in common? The outcome is typically not going to be positive…

A six cubic yard section of trench wall that collapses into an 8 foot deep trench has the weight and speed of a full size pickup traveling 45 mph.

These forces are the reason why a proactive and compliant trench safety program is paramount to your safety as a worker or as a rescuer!

Unfortunately, there was another tragic incident last week in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in which two workers were killed following a trench cave-in. Dirt buried 49-year-old Frank Romero and 32-year-old Gene Hern. The men were installing sewer and water lines in the 8 to 10 foot deep trench. City spokesperson Dave Romero says other workers frantically tried to dig the men out but didn’t make it to them in time. Hern and Romero were pronounced dead on the scene by medical officials.

This serves as another reminder of how important it is to be trained in the proper precautions and dangers of trenches and excavations. Once it happens, it’s too late, there’s no time to prepare. As a first responder, be aware when this type work is going on in your district or response area – don’t take chances, know how to protect yourself. And, if you’re involved with the project from the beginning, preplan each job with the utmost precaution.

According to OSHA, excavation and trenching are among the most hazardous construction operations. This type work presents serious hazards to all workers involved. Cave-ins pose the greatest risk and are much more likely than other excavation-related accidents to result in worker fatalities. Other potential hazards include falls, falling loads, hazardous atmospheres, and incidents involving mobile equipment. The regulation that covers requirements for excavation and trenching operations is OSHA 1926.650.

What’s the difference between an excavation and a trench?
OSHA defines an excavation as any man-made cut, cavity, trench, or depression in the earth’s surface formed by earth removal. This can include excavations for anything from cellars to highways. A trench is defined as a narrow underground excavation that is deeper than it is wide, and no wider than 15 feet (4.5 meters).

Why is it important to preplan the excavation work?
No matter how many trenching, shoring, and back-filling jobs you have done in the past, it is important to approach each new job with the utmost care and preparation. Many on-the-job accidents result directly from inadequate initial planning. Waiting until after the work has started to correct mistakes in shoring or sloping slows down the operation, adds to the cost, and increases the possibility of a cave-in or other excavation failure.

A big part of being safe, is being prepared. Knowing as much as possible about the job or work site and the materials or equipment needed is a best practice. Here are a few things OSHA recommends you consider about the site.

        1. Traffic
        2. Proximity and physical conditions of nearby structures
        3. Soil
        4. Surface and ground water
        5. Location of the water table
        6. Overhead and underground utilities
        7. Weather  conditions

OSHA Excavation and Trenching Standard applies to all open excavations made in the earth’s surface, including trenches. Strict compliance with all sections of the standard will greatly reduce the risk of cave-ins as well as other excavation-related accidents. See the resource below to learn more.
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Toddler Killed in Arkansas Building Collapse

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Toddler Killed in Arkansas Building CollapseAs a first responder, it’s your worst nightmare… pulling up to a scene of a building collapse with a woman trapped under a beam screaming out for her child who’s buried in the rubble. That’s what happened yesterday in a small town in Arkansas that’s located about 55 miles west of Little Rock. With an incident like this – or the recent tornados with destruction everywhere in sight – would you know how to make the best use of the tools on your apparatus while waiting for USAR back-up?

Most rescues from collapsed structures are done within the first few hours by local responders – usually before USAR teams can respond. How long do you wait for USAR back-up, and what would you do in the meantime? You already know the structure is unstable, where do you start? Do you know how to protect rescue crews from further collapse as they enter these areas? Could your team handle the job that these responders had to deal with?

It’s a reminder to all of us of how important it is to be prepared for the unexpected. As an emergency responder or team leader, make sure you know how to protect yourself and your team in situations like this. Knowing the proper safety precautions along with simple, practical techniques using tools readily available can make a big difference in the first few minutes of a building collapse emergency.

Reported by Washington Post National

MORRILTON, Ark. — As residents and rescue workers arrived at the scene of a building collapse in central Arkansas, one woman trapped under a beam screamed out for her baby, and rescuers pulled a toddler’s body from the rubble of a century-old building.

Firefighters used everything from backhoes to their bare hands to sift through the wreckage of the two-story brick building hours after 2-year-old Alissa Jones’ body was found in the rubble and authorities had accounted for everyone else inside. At least six other people were injured when the building suddenly collapsed Monday.

Brian Matthews was at his auto detailing shop nearby when he heard the building crumble. When he looked up, “there was nothing but smoke,” he said. He was among those who rushed over and heard a woman screaming, “My baby is still inside.” He and other men pulled bricks and wood off the woman, exposing her injured legs as she continued to cry out.

Matthews said the girl showed no signs of life when would-be rescuers found her in the rubble of a bridal boutique and cosmetic store. Coroner Richard Neal later said the child was dead. The relationship between the woman and the toddler was not immediately clear.

Investigators, including the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, were trying to determine whether ongoing construction at the bridal shop was to blame. “We don’t know how or why they collapsed,” said Brandon Baker, the director of emergency management in Conway County. “We just know it was fast.”

One wall inside the building that remains standing is still a cause for concern, Mayor Stewart Nelson said Tuesday morning. “I’m standing here looking at it,” Nelson said. “It’s been creaking and groaning all night … We’re just waiting for that wall to collapse, too.” He said Monday that people had noticed similar noises at the building in recent days.

Of the 10 people inside the building, Baker said one died and four others were injured. Neal said one of the dead girl’s relatives was among the injured. A local hospital said six people were treated. Christy Hockaday, chief executive of St. Vincent Morrilton, said five of the six were released and the remaining person was in good condition.

Morrilton police resumed looking for any possible victims Tuesday, although they believed everyone was accounted for. Workers inserted tiny cameras into crevices between crumbled bricks to make sure no one else was trapped.

The collapsed building, on a corner in the heart of downtown, forced officials to shut down a portion of the town’s business district. Broken bricks and twisted metal slumped over the street corner where the building once stood. A broken clothes rack showed off a few colorful dresses, mostly untouched by the barrage of debris.

Down the street, Kylie Cole, 32, thought a train from the nearby depot collided with a car when she heard the building collapse. By the time she made it near the stores, all she could see was dust. “We heard people screaming and crying,” she said.
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