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.
THE TRIP TO ARMENIA
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
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
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.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
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
· 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
· 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.
OPERATING DESPITE THE
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
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.
A WORTHWHILE EFFORT
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