Mission Reports

Earthquake: Armenia

by BFC Michael Tamillow

At 11:30 p.m. on Friday, December 10, 1988, I received a phone call at home that nearly knocked me off my feet. Someone calling himself Don Leblane from the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) was telling me that Chief Isman had given his approval for the international component of our Technical Rescue Operations Team to mobilize for departure to the earthquake site in Armenia, USSR. Our estimated departure time was noon the next day!

Despite the fact that we all were well aware of the devastating earthquake that occurred three days before, I never expected that we would actually be involved in this incident. The program development and negotiations with OFDA that I had been involved in for the past 18 months had been stalled since August due to some fine legal technicalities. It took me about five phone calls to confirm that the "go ahead" was legitimate.


After much ado with assembling personnel and equipment for transport, for which many Department members earned our undying gratitude, we were finally loaded on the plane and ready to go by 2 p.m. After some last minute negotiations with the Soviet Embassy regarding visas, we went airborne at 2:50. The C-141 was less than the epitome of comfort. Along with our pallets of supplies and equipment, we shared the cargo bay perched on webbed, sling-type seating that hung from each side of the fuselage. The cargo area was cold and extremely loud.

We had to wear earplugs throughout the entire 14 hour flight. Since it was futile to attempt any conversation more than one sentence, each team member was left to contemplate what was to come. After seven hours of flight, we landed in Frankfurt, West Germany for refueling. During the two hour layover, I asked Dr. Fred Krimgold, associate dean of urban studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, to give the team members a briefing about what we could expect in Armenia, Dr. Krimgold has been conducting research into past earthquake disasters and is a virtual walking encyclopedia in this regard. He was sent as part of our team to conduct research and provide technical assistance. Fred gave us a half-hour overview of the types of construction we would likely encounter and the problems we would face. In retrospect, it is amazing how accurate his presentation was. His briefing proved to be excellent preparation for the team. After the refueling and take-off, it was another six hour flight to the capital city of Armenia- Yeravan. This city of 1.5 million was left untouched by the earthquake. We landed at 5:30 EST or 2:30 p.m. their time.

The soviet airport was in a state of barely controlled chaos. Aircraft from every imaginable country was lined up side-by-side discharging incredible amounts of supplies and equipment. A veritable army of Armenian civilians and soviet army personnel proceeded to unload our C-141 by hand. It took more than four hours to transfer all of our equipment and supplies, as well as more than 30 tons of OFDA relief supplies, from the plane onto eight trucks and a bus that would carry us to our assignment: the devastated city of Leninakan.

Metro-Dade and Fairfax County personnel finally boarded an old city bus (which had no heat) for a hair-raising ride over icy roads and a high mountain pass to our area of operation. The trip that normally should have taken two and a half hours took more than five due to a combination of the terrible weather, relief vehicles trying to get into the city, and a steady stream of civilian vehicles trying to get survivors out of the city. I was truly concerned that we would not even reach our assigned area of operation. The driver of our bus left a lot to be desired in terms of driver safety.

On at least four different occasions the bus was sliding side-ways on the ice-covered road. The shoulders dropped off 10 to 20 feet on both sides of the road. I could only ponder our fate should the bus plunge off the edge. Local rescue and medical help were obviously over-whelmed already. I remember saying quite a few prayers during this trip.

Due to the darkness and lack of any buildings along the two-lane highway to Leninakan, we did not observe any expected destruction along the way. We approached the outskirts of the city at approximately 11:30 p.m.Which was now Sunday night. Our expectations of devastation and horror were quickly realized as we observed building after building flattened by the quake. We finally stopped in what had once been a beautiful open town square in the center of the city. Since it was (too late to try to establish a camp, we decided to sleep the rest of the night on the cold bus until daybreak. The eerie view of the collapsed city cathedral on one side of our bus was punctuated by the warehousing of hundreds of coffins, some empty, some full, stacked next to us on the other side. We slept fitfully that night.


The U.S. Rescue Team was thrown into what undoubtedly was worse than our imagined worst-case scenario during the development of this program. The following situations were working against us:

A difficult language barrier hampered the total team. One Metro-Dade firefighter spoke fluent Russian; he proved invaluable. The rest of us had to rely on interpreters.

Horrendous communications problems plagued the mission. The Soviet government refused OFDA's request to bring eases of programmable portable radios, portable repeater stations, and satellite dish communications equipment. We were limited to the use of 10 Fairfax County portables and six Metro-Dade portables, which were on different frequencies. Without the benefit of repeaters, the useful range of these was quite limited in terms of distance across the city and terrain.

Transportation was always quite limited and difficult when available. OFDA did its best to rent what ever buses or trucks were available. We were left stranded with our equipment more than once when the driver of a bus we were using would suddenly leave to go check on his family who might be injured or dead. Also, the Soviet army did not restrict civilian traffic in Leninakan. By 8:00 each morning the city went into virtual gridlock with every imaginable vehicle jamming all the streets. It would take us two to three hours to travel a mile across town.

This was the first operation of this type that occurred without any embassy support. The only U.S. Embassy was in Moscow, virtually a lifetime away. This severely compounded all aspects of the operation. We were operating in a totally isolated fashion throughout the mission. For three days we had no way to get information or requests back to the U.S.

This city of 225,000 people and all its infrastructure were devastated. Half of the Metro-Dade firefighters on this trip, as well as some of the dog handlers, had prior experience at both the Mexico City and El Salvador earthquakes. They described the immense destruction in both of those cities as limited to localized areas. They had the benefit of serviceable infrastructure in the rest of the city in terms of electricity, telephones, communications, heat, transportation, hospitals, etc. Such was not the case in Leninakan. It was a scene of total chaos.

The earthquake itself was quite severe, measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale. Due to the type of construction, as well as the quality of the materials used, most buildings came down in a tightly compacted pancake fashion. There were few voids (as compared with the Mexico City and El Salvador earthquakes) in which victims could survive. For this reason the save rates were quite low.

The U.S. Rescue Team, as well as many other international teams, got quite a late start in operations. This was due to the hesitation of the Soviet government to correctly assess the magnitude of the incident and request outside help, as well as the long travel times involved just to get there. Our team did not get into Leninakan and set up for operation until the beginning of the sixth day. A great deal of precious time had been lost.

Due to the combined effect of these detrimental factors, decision making was difficult at best. I had been placed in charge of the operating personnel of the U.S. Rescue Team before we left the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base. I answered directly to OFDA administrators who were onscene in Leninakan. One of the first, and most important, decisions to be made was where we would establish our camp and base of operation. This decision, I knew, would affect the outcome of our operation for the rest of our stay. Due to our unfamiliarity with this locality, coupled with the language barrier, ongoing chaos and need for security, this decision was extremely difficult to make. We decided to locate our base outside the city limits adjacent to a military airport. While this worked quite well in terms of safety and security for our personnel and equipment, it proved quite counter productive in terms of radio communications with OFDA personnel in the city, as well as travel time for personnel and equipment to an operation. This seemed to typify most of our decision making process, in that we had to make a best guess determination with little or no facts to base it on. I round this to be the single most difficult aspect of our stay.

All of the previous operations had occurred during the summer months in fairly tropical climes. This earthquake had occurred during the beginning of winter in mountainous terrain. Night time temperatures were in the low 20s. This made rest and sleep quite difficult. Most people would sleep two to three hours and then get up and go out to the ever-present campfire to get warm. Sleep interruption was compounded by the never-ending sound of aircraft landing or taking off from the airport adjacent to us.


After camp was established on Monday morning, things began to fall somewhat into place. I split the rescue personnel into two teams, each composed of both Metro-Dade and Fairfax County personnel. One team was sent out with the search handlers and dogs, while the other team stayed at camp to maintain security, ready tools and equipment, cook food, scrounge water and fire wood, and stand ready to back up the team in the field, if needed. That first afternoon we received a radio transmission from the team out in the city that they had a confirmed live victim and were beginning an extrication operation. We were elated! It took the team five hours to effect that rescue of a 60 year-old woman who was pinned at the knees by heavy concrete and rubble. It was quite frustrating for us back at camp not to be able to assist them. We had no transportation available.

The lack of sleep, cold and extrication efforts took its toll on the crew. The woman had the dead bodies of an infant and young girl pinned directly against her. One of the emergency physicians on our team had to amputate the leg of the girl to allow for her removal prior to the extrication of the live woman. It was grim work. Finally, at about 8:30 p.m. the woman was freed and transported to a medical facility.

As the team was just beginning to collect themselves, a worker ran up and stated that they had found a young girl alive in the rubble of another building a couple of blocks away. The exhausted crew quickly assembled their gear and commandeered a small van to take them to that scene. Luckily, it turned out to be a fairly simple extrication that took less than a half hour. They finally returned to camp by about 11:00 that night. It had been a long day.

The remaining days spent in Leninakan were a series of frustrating trips in and around the city chasing rumors and assessing hopeless sites. We were now into the eighth or greater day of operation since the quake and the Soviet workers, using cranes and heavy equipment, had been tearing the buildings apart with a vengeance. Many of the most hopeful sites were just too dangerous to work around, with six or eight story buildings listing 10 to 20 degrees from vertical. Fortunately, the expected after-shocks never occurred during our stay.

It was a sobering experience operating under conditions of total chaos. Emergency service personnel are action-oriented people who like to chart a course of action and proceed toward a goal. Working under the conditions that are present in a situation of complete devastation goes against most of these principles. Nothing happens as desired or expected. Necessary resources were either nonexistent or greatly delayed. Hard facts on which to base necessary decisions were difficult to find. I've always found it comforting to realize that if an operation in the County were not proceeding as expected, I could always request and receive a great deal of additional staffing and equipment in a relatively short period of time. In this case I found it disconcerting, to say the least, to realize that any additional resources we may need were 9,000 miles, and at least three days, away.

It was an ordeal that required a great deal of effort just to survive. Firewood and water were in short supply. We scrounged what we could and were assisted somewhat by Soviet military troops. In the cold climate we would have given anything for a decent bathroom. As it was, we had to construct a makeshift latrine out in an adjacent field. The cold made it all that much more difficult. We were usually too tired to do more than open a can of chili or spaghetti and eat it out of the can. Gasoline for the power tools and generators was in short supply. We had to barter to get a couple of gallons here and there.

Our camp became well known and consequently grew in size. During the week we took in rescue teams from Canada and Great Britain and a variety of American news reporters. The total number of residents grew to more than 60. We used some of the hundreds of camping tents and blankets that we brought as part of the relief supplies to house them


It is quite difficult to capture the degree of total devastation and immense pain and suffering that the citizens of Leninakan experienced. A number of vivid impressions are burned indelibly in my mind, though.

The sight of a privately owned vehicle driving down a city street with a coffin tied to the roof was both unnerving and symbolic of the tragedy of these people. I saw this replicated many times during our stay. I never did get used to it. The stacks of hundreds of coffins on every other street earner, along with the ever present odor of petrol and stench of death, gave the city a sense of gloom that was overpowering.

I'll never forget standing outside a collapsed three-story building talking to a local interpreter. This building had been a grade school. What was left looked like the open side of a child's dollhouse, with a few rooms left intact including the desks and blackboards. The vast majority of the school' children died in the rubble as three quarters of the building collapsed. The earthquake occurred at 11:41 on Wednesday morning. The interpreter began crying as she relayed the fact that had the earthquake occurred five minutes later, most all of the children probably would have survived. All schools let their students outside for recess at 11:45a.m. each day. This seemed a cruel twist of fate.

The scene of desolate families sitting aimlessly amid the rubble of what had been their home was replicated a thousand-fold throughout the city. Most had somehow found their wood-stove and dragged it onto the sidewalk. Wood from the mountains of debris was used to provide them some semblance of warmth and comfort. They sat there around the clock, day after day, hoping that they might somehow find a friend or relative alive, or at least recover their bodies.

One of the most difficult aspects of this operation was the fact that at night I could at least return to a tent and a sleeping bag, as cold as it might be. These people had nowhere to go. All their belongings were gone. And I knew that in the next week or so I would board a plane and fly home to my family and friends. It was difficult to contemplate the unfairness of it all.

I'll never forget the feeling of immense pride when the large American flag was raised over our camp the first day. Luckily, one of thc Metro-Dade firefighters thought to bring one along. We kept a light trained on it throughout each night. It was quite a sight to behold, especially keeping in mind that we were in the Soviet Union. It certainly caught the eye of the Soviet military personnel around our location. I'm sure it was visible to the many Soviet pilots who were taking off or landing at the airport.


Despite the factors working against us, the U.S. Rescue Team accomplished a great deal of good while in Leninakan. The two direct rescues were obviously of benefit. It's a shame that the delayed response, type of construction and other factors did not allow for more. The handlers and dogs also made live find determinations for other international teams working in the city. The emergency physicians performed numerous medical treatments for sick and injured Armenians. We brought in and helped distribute more than 30 tons of relief supplies including tents, blankets, flash-lights, helmets, gloves, plastic sheeting, medical supplies, medicine and more.

In a larger sense I think we made a significant impact on a great number of survivors in the city of Leninakan. Throughout our stay we were approached by hundreds of citizens who showered us with thanks and praise for our efforts. I think our concern diminished somewhat their immense pain and suffering. I found it extremely gratifying to be in command of, and associated with, the Fairfax County personnel on this mission. To the men, they were the embodiment of competent, veteran firefighters.

Many times during the course of our mission tensions rose within the camp due to the large number of people working under extremely demanding conditions with little sleep. The Fairfax County fire fighters maintained their composure and discipline throughout. They became a stabilizing force within the team by their example. Their stability and resilience under truly chaotic conditions went above and beyond the call of duty.

I know I speak for all the Fairfax County members of the U.S. Rescue Team when I say I was proud to be a part of this effort. It was a maturing, learning experience that we will never forget. I believe that we brought back a great deal of information and lessons learned that will improve our local operations and prepare us for future

by BFC Michael Tamillow