When a building collapses or a train wrecks, specialized rescue teams can extricate trapped people often in a matter of minutes, working with techniques and technology developed over the past two centuries
On January 17, 1994, Los Angeles became transfixed by the saga of Salvador Peña, a hitherto unknown immigrant father of five. Early that morning, Peña had been steering a motorized street sweeper around the first floor of a three-story parking garage at the Northridge Fashion Center mall when ground waves from a 6.7-magnitude earthquake broke the building apart, leaving him critically injured and in excruciating pain beneath two layers of concrete slabs and beams, pinned by his crumpled vehicle near a pool of gasoline. At just about any other time in human history, Peña would have been a goner.
But a fire department crew specializing in collapse rescue arrived on the scene from Pacoima, charted the wreckage, and spent the next two hours hammering a vertical shaft through the tangle of ruin. They spread foam to prevent fire, then jacked up the concrete lying on Peña’s vehicle with pillow-shaped air bags, thus opening up just enough space for hydraulic tools to pry him loose. Nine hours after the quake, the Salvadoran immigrant emerged on a backboard into a blaze of temporary television glory. And he would survive his injuries, the publicity, and a long string of reconstructive surgeries.
Peña’s freeing was a modern miracle and the direct product of more than two centuries’ experience in extricating people from collapsed buildings, fallen bridges, and machinery run amok. While innovators in the field have kept up with the hazards posed by dramatically larger collapses, it’s a race without a finish line. Now terrorism has joined earthquakes, construction and design mistakes, windstorms, accidental explosions, fires, and landslides as threats to our occupied structures. These buildings are bigger and more complex than ever, and they still fall down, even though made of materials a great deal stronger than traditional brick, stone, and wood.
Successful extrication depends on well-trained, highly organized teams using tools suited to the peculiar challenges of their task. When these are brought skillfully together, they yield an instructed haste at the scene, where the risk to rescuers can be finely balanced against the need to extricate victims before they succumb. Three calamitous eras did the most to advance such tools and skills: steam age railroad wrecks in the United States; coal mine disasters here and abroad; and the German bombing of England during World War II. The latter was a uniquely trying time in which rescuers had to work in the dark, amid gas leaks, under unstable ruins, even as more bombers arrived overhead.
The need for postcollapse search and rescue is as old as roofs and walls. An oil painting that hangs in the Museu da Cidade (City Museum) of Lisbon shows a half-dozen adults lifting a little girl from under a stone wall thrown down by the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami of 1755. In what might be called early multimedia, the artist brushed in a paragraph of white text on the canvas to narrate the rescue. Saving the girl proved a rare high note in one of history’s worst disasters, which leveled or burned most of the city.
As the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear in America, the nation had to endure a spate of disasters and emergencies born of new technologies, which spurred new ways of prying people from the wreckage. In 1846 a coal mine collapse in Carbondale, Illinois, trapped most of a shift underground; in 1853 a train plunged through an open drawbridge into the Norwalk River in coastal Connecticut, killing 46 and pinning others; and an 1854 boiler explosion at the Fales Gray railroad car factory in 1854 flattened the walls, injuring and killing dozens of workers.
American resourcefulness responded. In 1851 New York machinist Richard Dudgeon patented a hydraulic jack capable of lifting 60 tons—a variation on Joseph Bramah’s hydraulic press of 1796—which soon replaced the traditional ratchet and screw jacks when great weights had to be raised in constricted spaces. While Dudgeon may be best known for the steam car he began driving around New York City in 1857 in hopes that the “road locomotive” could end the mistreatment of urban horses, his new jack was revolutionary. In the simplest manifestation of a hydraulic jack, a lever-actuated pump forces fluid from a reservoir through a pipe into the cylindrical housing of a piston, upon whose underside a pump stroke exerts steady if slow upward pressure. (Hydraulic pistons visible today on bulldozers and cranes rely on the same principles, although powerful motors do the pumping and tough rubber hoses transfer the fluid.)
The hydraulic jack found an eager market among railroad crews and factory riggers, and in time among collapse-rescue specialists. Richard Dudgeon, Inc. still manufactures hydraulic jacks, the “pancake” varieties of which are less than two inches high, but still capable of lifting 50 tons through a dozen or more tiny pistons, each with its own fluid path, embedded in the firm, rectangular base.
As the railroad industry blossomed in the 1850s, authorities had to deal with a corresponding surge in disasters and passenger entrapments. A wrecker’s guild formed and would thrive until automobiles and airplanes eclipsed the railroad in passenger transportation. Railroads fielded dozens of crews to clear the lines and pick up the pieces, prepositioning large numbers of wreck trains that could reach any point on the main lines within a couple of hours. A typical wreck train had four cars tagging the tender: a steam-powered derrick, a dormitory car, a boxcar for rigging and tools, and a flatcar stacked with timbers and spare parts. If the first bulletin from the scene reported significant injuries, a “hospital train” followed close behind, picking up surgeons and nurses along the way.
By 1890 most wreck trains included a rail-mounted derrick crane, its riveted iron boom exhibiting a powerful, almost saurian look. The first generation of steam-powered wrecking derricks in the early 1880s could lift 20 tons. A wrecking derrick ran on steam generated by its own boiler. Working levers that directed power from reciprocating steam cylinders to a host of gears, the operator could roll the car down the tracks, swivel the crane on a turntable, raise the boom, and spool wire rope onto a winch. With a stout derrick, counterweights, and a low gear ratio, enormous weights could be hoisted or at least dragged. Each new generation of wrecking cranes scaled up with the mass of locomotives, the biggest of which (appropriately called “Big Boy”) hit the rails in 1941 at 595 tons. For the big jobs, as many as five cranes heaved on a wreck at the same time.
Former sailors made particularly good wreckers because they were used to improvising with rigging. As Edward Hungerford wrote about such crews in The Modern Railroad of 1911, “Every man is a trained wreck worker, as a fireman is trained to his peculiar business.” Such workers freed victims, rebuilt track, set boxcars back on the rails, and reopened the main line to traffic — all often in less than a day and sometimes in a mere few hours, a response possible because the wreck- master and his 12- to 16-man crew lived within minutes of the train yard. Engines were kept pressurized by hoses workman in a trench in March 1912, the Union Railway Company dispatched one of its wrecking crews, which rigged a wooden frame overhead, complete with block and tackle. Seventy-five volunteers hauled on the rope and moved the boulder away.
Three years later, the New York Fire Department (FDNY) equipped a delivery van with all the latest tools for emergency rescue, building an impressive record in responding successfully to a wide range of emergencies, including ammonia fires and acid leaks. The most dramatic advance was the FDNY’s ability to free the trapped, using tools such as “oxygen helmets,” which supplied compressed air to rescuers working in toxic spaces. This technology had emerged earlier in response to the need for first responders to fight tunnel fires and to enter coal mines after explosions. The first prototypes of the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) appeared in the 1880s but weren’t adopted for mine rescue until 1901, when Pope & Pearson Colliery provided WEG breathing sets (so named after their inventor, William Edward Garforth) to trained rescue squads at its mine near Altofts in West Yorkshire, England. The German company Drager made an important innovation in SCBA with a rig combining a regulator that could supply amounts of oxygen according to breathing rates; a chemical canister that neutralized carbon dioxide without fail, allowing unabsorbed oxygen to be recirculated; and a harness suitable for slithering through debris.
A close call in January 1912 made certain that the NYFD would add another cutting-edge tool to its rescue arsenal. That month a fire caused the collapse of the Equitable Life Assurance Building, trapping the company’s president in the basement strong room. A window opened to street level, but a row of inch-thick steel rods barred the exit, and the combustion above was heating the room like an oversized Dutch oven. Firefighters frantically wore out dozens of hacksaw blades, eventually releasing the prisoner after a nerve-wracking hour and a half. Had the team carried a high-energy gas torch, the bars would have yielded in minutes. The oxy-fuel torch, which had been introduced nine years before, combined oxygen with a stream of acetylene or other fuel gas to ignite a flame as hot as 6,000°F. Once that jet brings steel to white heat, a stream of oxygen is enough to keep the cut going, because the iron and its alloying agents provide all the fuel necessary.
Such small but critical items of rescue and cutting equipment would have been invaluable two decades later in freeing victims of Fascist bombing attacks on cities in Spain and Ethiopia. News of that slaughter and destruction inspired wholehearted civil defense preparations in London, home of many war plants, government headquarters, warehouses, and docks. The first Luftwaffe raiders began attacking English air bases soon after the evacuation of Dunkirk. Attacks on London began in full force in early September 1940. An average of 200 bombers passed over England’s largest city every night through November 2, their bombs killing nearly 10,000 people. One night generated 150 collapse emergencies.
The Blitz delivered 25,000 tons of high explosives and innumerable small incendiaries onto London’s roofs and streets. Smaller but still devastating tonnages ravaged other cities, including Coventry and Sheffield. At the peak of the bombings, 127,000 civil defense workers in London were toiling through the night, encountering and fixing so many new kinds of problems that an entire set of textbooks could have been written about the physics of destruction, the repair of broken pipes and electric lines, and managing panic.
Through the end of the war, rescue parties (first local, later nationalized) extricated 20,000 people from the ruins. The success of the rescue services helped convince Londoners to continue living in target zones and to carry on with their daytime jobs building warplanes and unloading ships. It was critical that these city dwellers came to believe that, if they or a loved one tumbled into a cellar followed by 10 tons of shattered brick and wood, a dozen calm and resolute men would arrive within minutes and start digging them out, regardless of danger.
Out of such chaos came timeless lessons in crisis management. Quickly discovering that a major collapse would turn out any number of local and regional units who sometimes began arguing over the next steps, British authorities invented the role of the “new incident officer,” typically an air-raid warden with good judgment who knew the neighborhood. After filing an initial report, he would set up a portable desk complete with blank forms. The desk flew a blue flag and also mounted a blue battery-powered lamp for night work. The incident officer wore a blue cloth cover on his hard hat. To all other emergency personnel arriving, the blue meant “check here before doing anything,” thus prioritizing critical tasks and preventing one team’s work from endangering an- other’s. One of the most important jobs—neglected by amateurs —was to fan out through the neighborhood to gather information on how many people might be trapped below. Without such information, rescue parties were sure to waste their efforts. Similar systemization can still be seen today at some emergency sites, where the incident commander works from a portable desk unfolded from the rear of his vehicle ... often sporting a green or blue lamp.
The houses, hotels, and flats of London had heavy walls, but bombs reduced them to rubble that rescuers could penetrate with rudimentary forms of mining, such as hastily driven shafts and tunnels. The most valuable instruments for this variety of rescue were human hands, along with baskets for debris and saws to cut broken lumber out of the way.
Today’s collapse rescuers have moved from the age of brick into the far more vexing age of concrete. Even after these buildings fall to ruin, large sections of floor slabs, beams, and girders of a concrete structure remain tied together with rebar and wire mesh— nets of steel and cement that will crush survivors to death if rescuers can’t break them free in time.
In 1904 the 210-foot-high Ingalls Building in Cincinnati became the first skyscraper exceeding 10 stories to employ concrete for its main structural framework, a radical departure from previous tall buildings that depended on steel or iron frames faced with brick or stone. The Ingalls Building rebuffed skeptics by simply not cracking or falling down, and indeed it still stands today. Now people work and live in hundreds of thousands of tall buildings of concrete reinforced with wire mesh and rebar. And because even steel-framed buildings depend on floors of poured concrete, this material can be found at impressive heights in most any city.
Whether cast in place or assembled from factory-fabricated components, concrete structures are fast to erect, comparatively low in cost, and offer inherent resistance to fire unmatched by such competing materials as wood and uncoated steel. But if erected without earthquake-resistant technology, concrete buildings can fold up like so many card tables under a powerful shock, such as the one that rocked Mexico City in September 1985. The jellylike lake bed under the city’s foundations shifted violently dozens of times, far more than many unprepared buildings of middle height could withstand. One 22-story concrete tower collapsed atop a smaller adjacent structure. Most damage was suffered by buildings 10 to 15 stories high.
Concrete-ready rescuers bring a wide range of power tools to a modern collapse zone, including shears and band saws to cut rebar. Diamond- tipped core drills able to cut human- sized holes through a slab are built to be highly portable across the roughest terrain. In 1995 a core drill enabled rescuers at Oklahoma City’s bombed Murrah Building to secure a hanging floor slab from crashing down on rescuers.
Through the 1970s, southern California emergency responders trained for earthquakes at a facility called Disaster City, located on Mount Lee behind the Hollywood sign in the hills overlooking Los Angeles. The program drew on civil defense booklets based on experience gained during World War II bombings, which for all their merits had little to say about massive reinforced concrete, remembers Mike McGroarty, a retired firefighter and now a collapse-rescue training consultant. Then working for the La Habra Fire Department and the California emergency response office, McGroarty helped set up a new urban rescue training effort at Port Hueneme, where instructors and structural engineers worked out new methods for dealing with the consequences of disaster to concrete structures. The training center required its students to raise massive chunks of concrete, brace them with shoring, and crawl underneath to complete simulated rescues. “Once they know they have to go under it, they get a different eye for the work,” he says.
“When I started pouring concrete in the ‘70s it was just concrete and rebar and wire mesh,” says John O’Connell, a retired FDNY firefighter and collapse expert, recalling his work as a union carpenter building docks in New York. “Now there’s Kevlar instead of wire mesh, nylon and metal fibers for strength, and epoxy-coated stuff. It would be good to have some kind of shaped charge to cut through this.”
Any new tools against collapse are sure to get a thorough checkout first by Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) teams. The plan to organize such rapid- response cadres on a national scale through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) dates to 1990, spurred by frustration over poor responses to hurricanes in the southeastern United States and earthquakes in California, Armenia, and Mexico City. “At the time FEMA was simply an agency that sent someone with a checkbook to disasters to help pay for things that needed to be done,” comments Curtis Varone of the National Fire Protection Association. “In light of the criticism and the recognized need for mobile teams of rescuers, engineers, hazmat specialists, canines and handlers, technical search specialists, and medical personnel, FEMA decided to start organizing the teams.”
Now any major disaster will be followed by the arrival of US&R task forces, which may include teams dispatched by other nations. These teams train on weekends with state-of-the-art technology such as robots used to explore wreckage too dense, too deep, or too dangerous for search dogs. Experience has taught the limitations of prototype tools. Attempts to use robots to peer into the deep voids at the World Trade Center collapse didn’t pan out, for instance, says O’Connell.
“The average run time of robots at the Trade Center was 18 minutes,” reports Howie Choset of the Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) robot program. “In one case the tracks melted.” Aside from the heat, the tangled and uneven terrain made navigation and movement extremely difficult. Choset expects that CMU’s family of snake-shaped robots will do better, if the program finds enough money to get its lab specimens ready for prime time. Already CMU’s snakebots can climb flagpoles, inch along I-beams, and slither through narrow holes. Their job will be to send back video and audio through a tether cable, using an onboard accelerometer to maintain orientation while plumbing the wreckage. While no present-day robot is going to package up and carry anyone out of the rubble, they may be able to start scouting in the precious hours that pass before heavy-rescue trucks can arrive on the scene.
Those trucks carry a lot of stuff: hydraulic jacks and Jaws of Life spreaders; breathing sets and the compressors to refill the tanks; air bags such as those used to hoist wreckage at the Northridge Fashion Center; lumber; acetylene- and gasoline-fueled torches; air-powered braces; plasma cutters for concrete; ropes and blocks; diamond-tipped drills; ultrasensitive microphones and cameras on long rods to probe tight spaces; carpentry tools; toxic-gas detectors; and light stands for night work. For bigger emergencies experts can summon massive cranes, wrecker’s torches, and track-mounted “nibblers,” which can reach high to reduce a concrete slab into bite- size pieces.
These teams are now trained too in the psychology of gaining control in the first minutes or hours of a disaster. Often well-meaning volunteers swarm the site. “In these situations you have one person picking up a brick and throwing it in one place, and another guy picking it up and throwing it back,” says McGroarty. Such freelancing can be good if it helps lightly injured people off the top of the rubble pile, but very dangerous when enthusiasts go much beyond that. David Hammond, a structural engineer who began assisting rescue efforts in 1985, estimates that 150 untrained rescuers died in the days following the earthquake in Mexico City, most commonly when weakened buildings collapsed on them during aftershocks. (While extricating some victims from the Northridge earthquake, expert rescuers were also at risk from aftershocks, because they had crawled deeply into the wreckage. But they had a solution: they built a secure stronghold inside the wreck, with massively braced timbers.)
“The thing is, everybody wants to help,” observes McGroarty, recalling that the World Trade Center collapse zone was so huge and emotionally charged that two days passed before the last trespasser could be driven off. He was working the North Tower rubble as a representative of California’s Office of Emergency Services. “We had six guys working in a crevasse six floors down, and there was some kid up above holding onto a piece of metal that would have caused a lot of damage if it fell on them. He wouldn’t listen and had a lot of things to say back at me. So I got a New York assistant chief and I told him, ‘We’ve got to get this guy out of here.’ He had better expletives than the kid and got him to go away.”
Of the three essentials on which collapse rescue depends —a highly trained organization, specialized tools, and time to work their magic—the last may prove the rarest commodity if a catastrophic earthquake strikes southern California. The reason is fire.
In 2008 Charles Scawthorn, an earthquake crisis expert and professor of urban management at Kyoto University, sketched out for Los Angeles area responders the U.S. Geological Survey’s “ShakeOut Scenario,” should an earthquake strike equal in intensity to the 1906 San Francisco temblor. The principal threat to life a century ago began with tiny fires started by gas leaks and overturned lamps. If small flames go unaddressed once again, these may grow into giant flame fronts, leaping four-lane roads and even interstate highways.
“The real concern [in the scenario] is not skyscrapers but mile after mile of quite dense single-family dwellings,” he says. The basin has more than 2 million such houses, and breeze-driven flames could consume thousands of them, along with wood-framed apartment buildings. While a quake is unlikely to generate a firestorm of the kind let loose during the World War II bombing of Dresden, it would be bad enough. The most heartbreaking situation would result when rescuers who could have extricated quake survivors if given a little more time are obliged to abandon them to the inferno. This happened at the Valencia Street Hotel just two hours after the San Francisco temblor and again at collapse sites in London during the Blitz and after the January 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. In Scawthorn’s model the quake will have snapped pipes supplying fire hydrants, so fire engines will have nothing to stop the advancing front. “And water siphoned from swimming pools won’t cut it,” he adds.
The ShakeOut Scenario postulated an earthquake 60 miles away, which would trigger a chain of catastrophes that would set thousands of houses and apartments on fire, putting fire departments and collapse-rescue squads on the run. (Nor is this the worst possible case, which could involve a powerful jolt from the much closer Newport- Inglewood Fault Zone falling on a day when the basin is coincidentally buffeted by hot and dry Santa Ana winds.) Given agreement among seismologists that southern California is long overdue for an earthquake of fearsome magnitude, Scawthorn offers a few fire safety tips for the Los Angeles Basin. Citizen volunteers trained as Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members will be vital, because they can catch tiny fires early and assist the lightly trapped to safety. Second, all conventional gas meters could be replaced with models featuring a “seismic shutoff,” in which a tremor releases a spring-loaded valve that cuts the flow of gas to a building. Finally, a complete ring of quake-resistant fire mains could be built around Los Angeles, using as rights of way the Los Angeles River and concrete-lined storm drains. These emergency water lines would have to be ready at a moment’s notice, so the region would have to keep them filled with freshwater from reservoirs in the hills and stand by to pump seawater from the ocean.
It’s a sobering scenario. But the history of the field going back to 1755 shows that collapse-rescue teams have a way of steeling themselves for each fearsome prospect as it looms. Highly trained people, exploring the apocalyptic void with the help of the latest machines, while heeding the ancient instinct to help others in distress: that’s a powerful combination.