Structural collapse in Jacksonville, Florida

Jacksonville Deployment Report

By Marshia Hall, Temple Terrace Fire

On December 6, 2007, Search and Rescue teams across Florida were called out to assist the Jacksonville Fire Department with a structural collapse. Parts of a six-story parking garage had gone down while under construction. A worker who had witnessed the collapse said that sections of the garage went down like dominos, and a plume of smoke could be seen from across the river. Twenty-three people who had been working at the site had to be rescued; 19 were transported to nearby hospitals; two had serious injuries.

When the dust settled, it was discovered that one person was still missing, presumably buried under the rubble. Canine Search and Rescue teams and structural engineers were called in. I had just returned from search team training in Miami when I received the call, and my gear was still in the car. I put Trapper and Shade in the car and set off for the disaster site.

Six K-9 teams responded. We assessed the situation and determined what each dog was best suited for: who tunneled best, who wouldn’t jump off the cantilevered floors, whose weight wouldn’t cause a secondary collapse in weakened areas, etc. We divided up into teams, assigned areas to search, and went to work. Before searching, we verified that veterinary treatment was available, should any of the dogs be injured. Trapper had to climb multiple ladders to get to some of the areas. He also did a perimeter search around the disaster site. There were many access points and all sides needed to be covered. There was rebar every four inches, either broken and protruding, or stretched to its limit and waiting to snap. Some of the cement had just been poured, and was still very wet. Some was starting to set up, and some had already cured. The structure had come down and settled in different positions; some layers rested in V-frames, some fell on other pieces of concrete and made A-frames, and some cantilevered over open space. Some walls of cement were dangling precariously over the areas needing to be searched. Loose wooden four-by-four boards and sheets of 3/8" plywood were balanced over deep voids. The structure was not stable and shifted as we searched. Ladders were everywhere and we used them to cross voids or climb over A-frame collapses.

Plywood laid over the rebar made for efficient and safer travel and working surfaces. 4x4"s were wedged over the cement portions to make them temporarily more stable. It was extremely noisy, due to the cranes removing debris and generators operating tools and lights. They needed to call for “all quiet” when the K-9’s were on the pile in order for us to hear them. Everyone stopped and watched hoping to hear one of them bark—an alert that would mean the dogs had found someone alive.

1-2_jacksonville2At one point Trapper stepped off a ladder onto a piece of plywood (he likes to choose his own route), and it slid all the way back down to the bottom of the pile. He rode it like it was the teeter totter he trains on. He just waited until it stopped, looked up and got back on the ladder and climbed again. He went right on like he hoped nobody was watching! I was very proud of my K-9s—they did a great job covering their areas.

The searches were held around the clock for two days, with the fire department doing selective breaching and debris removal. Although the dogs showed interest in some areas, they did not alert. In the dark of night, we hid people for the dogs to find. This gave the K-9s a reward for the good work and an incentive to go out and do it again.

At about 1:00am on the third day an audio/visual technician found an area of interest. Holes were drilled down into the area so the cameras could visualize the area and the dogs could catch scent. By then, two dogs that search for cadavers were brought up to the area and immediately alerted. The rest of the search teams stayed in rescue mode and continued searching other areas until that victim could be positively identified as the person missing. Once he was identified, the operation turned into one of recovery. Rescue workers carried out the body early Saturday afternoon, nearly 60 hours after the collapse.

1-2_jacksonville4The Jacksonville Incident Commander came and thanked us for our quick response, for our efforts and a great job. Trapper, Shade and I headed back to Orlando and were able to attend my team’s training the following day in Orlando. At the training, both Trapper and Shade received lots of love and attention and quick easy searches for lots of rewards!

The excellent performance of the dogs was due to the constant training we’re part of. Thank you to Trapper’s Puppy Raisers at Guide Dogs of America: Judi Gomez and Miguel Ola, his Guardians: Janice and Michael Torres, his new sponsor: Allstate Insurance, and all the Search Dog Foundation supporters who help to make this happen!