Saturday, July 08, 2006

Building Collapses in Clinton, Sending Seven Local Firefighters to the Rescue

By Lynndi Lockenour

Last Monday night, seven members of the St. Charles County Fire Department found themselves in a situation for which they have spent years training. A three-story building collapsed around 6 p.m. Monday evening in Clinton Missouri. At the time of the collapse, 50 some people were inside. The top floor of the structure, built in the early 1800s, housed a retail store, while the bottom belonged to a local Elk Lodge. The accident was originally reported as an explosion, though no fire was found. The actual cause of the collapse is still under investigation.

The local fire department in Clinton responded immediately. However, when they realized the damage was beyond their control, they accessed the regional asset out of Kansas City. When the Kansas City unit arrived, they saw the situation was also beyond their manpower, then activating the Missouri Task Force One. This is a regional group of firefighters who are called upon in situations like these where buildings collapse or suffer structural damage.

Seven local firefighters responded to the call in Clinton. Making the four-hour trek to Clinton, Missouri were Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes, Captain Robb Watkins, Captain Gary Bird, Captain Dave Fecht, Captain Larry Hagedorn, and Private Gerard Orf.

When the men from St. Charles arrived, 10 of the original 50 victims were still contained within the ruble. Captain Watkins described the scene as “fluid,” saying the building itself was very unstable and difficult to maneuver. “People were tangled around furniture and debris,” he said.

Using timbers and box cripping, the firefighters stabilized the ruble as much as possible before entering. Captain Watkins said the firefighters were able to maintain verbal contact with most of the victims throughout the rescue effort. “To say I wasn’t scared at times would be an understatement,” Watkins said. “But hearing those people crying for help was motivation to focus on the job and go in there.”

Of the 10 people still trapped in the building, nine survived. Watkins called it a miracle, saying, “someone was watching out for us all.” He said this rescue was the most successful he’d ever seen in his 14 years with the department. “It was a euphoric feeling to assist in rescuing those people,” he said.

After being rescued from the ruble, most of the victims were able to walk away. Captain Watkins said most of the people were just thankful to be alive. “To turn around and see what you’ve just lived through,” he said. “It was nothing short of miraculous.”

The Missouri Task Force One unit also assisted in New York during the aftermath of the September 11 and Hurricane Katrina tragedies. Captain Watkins said the success of Monday night’s rescue is an example of how these emergency systems are designed to work. “This proves how important it is to have this type of back-up system readily available,” he said.

Most people think in natural disasters or large-scale emergencies, FEMA will come to the rescue effort. In reality the statutes issued by FEMA say that in such a situation, the local rescue teams should be prepared to wait up to 48 hours for FEMA to arrive. “In a large-scale accident like this one, we don’t have 48 hours,” Captain Watkins said. “It was vital to have such a system established within the state.”

In the coming months, the local Fire Department establishments will be equipped with Task Force One trucks to accompany them in the instance of structural damage during a fire or other emergency. At a cost of over $400,000 per truck, Captain Watkins said they would enable rescue crews to maneuver much more efficiently. “These trucks would be ready to respond at a moments notice,” Watkins said. “Allowing us to save lives, should a building catch fire or collapse in the St. Louis metro area.”