Columbia's Task Force 1 searches for survivors, bodies in Joplin

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 | 12:02 a.m. CDT; updated 1:17 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 21, 2011
Volunteers go on a search and rescue mission after hearing a rumor that a survivor was found in the wreckage Tuesday afternoon. They found no one.

JOPLIN — Columbia-based Missouri Task Force 1 worked to rescue survivors, recover the bodies of victims and clear rubble from Joplin’s destroyed big-box store, The Home Depot, at 20th and Range Line Road on Tuesday.

A key purpose of Task Force 1 is to support local police, fire and emergency management efforts, Task Force Leader Doug Westhoff said. He said the force operates according to priorities set by the local agencies.

The team came to Joplin to assist in the response after Sunday’s devastating tornado. Other Task Force 1 projects in Joplin have included an auto parts store, Academy Sports + Outdoors and extensive residential areas in the city.

Westhoff described the wreckage in Joplin as “total destruction.”

It would be difficult to describe the location any other way, based on the tangled mountain of debris. The former big-box store could only be recognized as The Home Depot by the white and orange metal, twisted and piled high; mangled orange shopping carts atop dumpsters; and the screws, pliers and other miscellany flung about the surrounding area.

Westhoff said the building’s particular style of tilt-up construction, with concrete walls “pinned at the roof” did not withstand the tornado.

“When the roof comes off, essentially what you have are those big tall concrete panels that are standing vertical," he said. "In this particular case those panels had nothing to hold them up in the air.”

Based on witnesses’ accounts, Westhoff said that the likely scenario involved the roof coming off the building, people moving to the front of the store to seek shelter behind the front wall and then the wall falling in on top of them.

“So yesterday was the recovery of seven individuals from underneath those concrete slabs … Fatalities. ‘Recoveries’ to us is fatalities, ‘rescues’ is lives,” he said.

Task Force 1 had made 10 recoveries and no rescues as of noon Tuesday, Westhoff said. He said most rescues are completed by “spontaneous bystanders, people that happened to be here and weren’t hurt” in an event’s immediate aftermath.

“We understood … there was a rush of locals that came here, saw the destruction, helped people out,” Westhoff said.

A handful of ruined automobiles sat on one side of The Home Depot’s parking lot. Westhoff said some people recognized the vehicles as belonging to their family members, indicating that the person was inside the building.

“We had a man standing on the corner right here in front of our command post all day yesterday,” Westhoff said, “that knew that one of those vehicles there belonged to ... I believe it was his son-in-law. And his son-in-law and his two grandchildren were in that store, and we recovered them yesterday afternoon. And he was not gonna leave until he had some kind of closure on that.”

Task Force 1 has 210 members, nearly all unpaid volunteers, who take leave or vacation time from their day-to-day jobs for deployment. Each deployment comprises one-third of the force, or 70 members, plus 10 support staff. Westhoff said the federal government requires three-deep staffing of each position to ensure availability.

This count does not include the team's dogs. Task Force 1 only uses dogs trained to alert when they find live people, Missouri Task Force 1 Canine Search Specialist Eliodora Chamberlain said.

“The reason for that … is, if there were … live people who were trapped with people who have passed we want to make sure that the dogs are not gonna hit on cadaver and forget about those who are still alive," Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain has been working with Katy, a petite black dog named after the Katy Trail, since 2002. Katy was deployed after Hurricane Katrina and has been involved in many other assignments.

“The dogs are phenomenal,” Chamberlain said. “We came in the day of; Katy and I got here like around 11 or so … We started like at 2 o’clock that morning and just went non-stop throughout the day yesterday.”

Chamberlain said Katy is the most experienced dog on the team, and because of this she is called upon to confirm the findings of other search-and-rescue dogs.

“What her alert is when she finds somebody who is alive,” Chamberlain said, “she will bark right at that place, and we come to her. She will stay with that person in that location the entire time until I get to her.”

Columbia-based Task Force 1 is one of only 28 such teams in the U.S., Westhoff said, and the force’s equipment is worth $1 million or more. He said most rescue teams cannot afford such an array.

“People don’t realize that we’ve got a very unique asset sitting in the backyard,” Westhoff said about Missouri Task Force 1. “You don’t use it very often … but when these events happen … we wanna get in there and effect some life-saving processes if we can.”

Westhoff said Task Force 1 brings together individuals from a variety of fields including trauma and emergency medicine, structural engineering and information technology.

“So we bring all those different disciplines together and everybody uses the skill sets that they have in their particular discipline," Westhoff said. "We blend those all together, and we have one heck of a little machine working here.”

Task Force 1 members don’t know how long they will be in Joplin.

“We’ll stay here until the local officials need our services, and once they don’t have any more jobs for us then we’ll go home,” Westhoff said.

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