KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials are praising the efforts of a Lincoln-based Urban Search & Rescue Task Force who dug for four days and nights through the wreckage of a Kansas grain elevator in search of at least four missing workers.
"We are so proud of the job the Nebraska task force did in Kansas," said John A. Miller, regional director for FEMA Region VII, based in Kansas City, Mo. "Their courage and dedication to an unbelievably difficult job was really something to see."
Last week, President Clinton authorized the use of the Nebraska task force to help state and local emergency personnel locate the workers, thought to still be alive in the rubble of the DeBruce Grain Co. The elevator, reported to be the third largest in the world, was severely damaged by an explosion that witnesses said they heard up to 10 miles away. Three workers subsequently were found dead and a fourth worker still is missing.
The Nebraska task force is one of 27 FEMA Urban Search & Rescue Task Forces located in 18 states throughout the country. These task forces are made up of emergency services personnel, engineers and other specialists who are trained and equipped to rescue victims of structural collapse.
The Nebraska Task Force is comprised mostly of firefighters and rescue personnel from the Lincoln Fire Department. Four teams of search dogs and their handlers who live in southern Missouri also are part of the team and were deployed with the Lincoln firefighters and officers.
The Kansas assignment was the first time the Lincoln team actually got to perform search and rescue activities as a part of the FEMA Urban Search & Rescue National Response System. The team was activated in 1995 to help search for some missing persons after Hurricane Opal but didn't get to work because the missing persons were located. Carol Coleman, FEMA federal coordinating officer for the rescue mission in Kansas, said she was most impressed by the professionalism of the team and their willingness to work around the clock through many adversities, including high heat and dangerous conditions.
"I was so impressed with all of them," Coleman said. "They had the training, the talent and the expertise and they wanted to use it. They gave 110 percent."
The 62-member task force worked in 12-hour shifts from about 1 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday morning. The rescue effort was scaled back Saturday when it became apparent that the fourth worker could no longer be alive and because of safety considerations.
Task force members already had survived two incidents where temporary structural shoring had collapsed. No rescuers were injured in either incident but command officials deemed the operation was becoming too risky to continue inside the tunnel area which ran below silos that had sustained massive structural damage. One of the task force members was injured early Saturday morning when he was hit in the head by a falling pipe. He was treated and released from a Wichita hospital.
Rescuers were concentrating on the tunnels because survivors and grain company staff indicated that the missing workers were likely to be in those areas. All three elevator workers recovered earlier in the week were found in the tunnels within about 100 feet of one another. The workers were found by search teams comprised of task force members and emergency personnel from several area Kansas fire departments.
Coleman said she understood the disappointment that came when command officials jointly agreed to withdraw the task force before locating the last missing worker.
"I know it was very difficult for them to leave without finding that fourth person," Coleman said. "They just didn't want to give up. Their dedication and caring made me feel proud that they a...