We got an advisory that Oklahoma City had requested help and that Los Angeles was sending two of our task forces. Looking at it on TV, my preliminary observation was: "Two task forces? One building? That should be plenty of people." I knew that two other task forces had already been alerted and I really didn't think we were going to get called.
We were inundated with media--everybody interested in what a task force is and how it operates. I and other people responsible for that kind of liaison work got to bed fairly late that night. At 4:15 a.m. the morning of the 20th we got an alert call. That means we start calling some people in and make preparations so that if the team is activated we're already heading out the door, so to speak. We got a call an hour, hour-and-a-half after that: We had been activated. There were going to be six teams on the building.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 6, 1995 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 7 Metro Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Working People: Due to an editing error, Friday's Voices interview with urban rescue specialist Wayne Ibers mistakenly indicated that Los Angeles sent two task forces to Oklahoma right after the April 19 blast; the teams were from other cities in the national emergency network.
We go through a check-in program. Each individual has to be medically evaluated to make sure they're fit to take the trip. We have to make sure their personal gear is in order. We have to be self-sufficient for 10 days so that we're not a burden on the community we go into. They've already been hard hit so their infrastructure may not be able to tend our needs. We have a cache of water, food, tents, sleeping bags.
Then we started our trek to March Air Force Base. The Air Force understood our mission and did everything they could to make our departure as smooth as possible. Our team arrived late in the evening at the Oklahoma City Convention Center, got unpacked and bunked down about 1:30 a.m. on the 21st. We were at the site by 7 a.m.
My first impression was that the media didn't cover the entire problem. The focus had been on the federal building, which was absolutely devastated; but there were surrounding buildings--what we would call "pre-code," unreinforced masonry--that were hit almost as hard. The first day we did a complete secondary search of all the floors above that huge rubble pile, what we called "the hill"--a very, very thorough search--to be able to say once and for all that that area was cleared of any victims. There were constant overhead threats we had to be mindful of--hundreds of pounds of concrete twisting in the wind, light fixtures dangling from thin wires. Other squads ended up in the east end of the building--a single-story, large office area that had a lot of destruction.
This is probably the first time that this (nationwide rescue) system has been tested to such an extent and I think it came through with flying colors. One thing that speaks well for it is that teams came from across the nation and you could see groups coming together, able to work side by side with the same rescue techniques. It was really something to see.
Our work period was 12 hours, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.--and later 8 to 8--each day.
We didn't find anybody alive but we knew that finding victims helped bring closure to the family members and survivors. One day, we found a personal coin collection almost entirely intact, and the ability just to give somebody something back even when it was detached from the human tragedy was important.
The devastation is really almost overwhelming. How could somebody do something like this? This act is beyond comprehension.
It all kind of ran together. We were starting to call it "Groundhog Day," like the movie--we'd go out there and do the same thing, day after day. I don't want to appear callous and flippant, because Oklahoma City was hurting as any community would and we're sensitive to that. The humor isn't something we would display publicly. But if you get too involved in personal stories, you lose that focus, that operational edge. Humor very much helps defuse what you're being inundated with. It's a way for us to come back and do the job again tomorrow.
The people of Oklahoma constantly amazed us--their sense of volunteerism. They couldn't go to the site, so they were continually at the Convention Center. They had a 24-hour food line going for us. There were hot showers. If anybody needed underwear or a clean pair of socks, that was available. In the evening, after looking at that building, processing that devastation, the twisted victims, you walked into the Convention Center and everybody had a smile on their face, nothing but a kind word--and nobody asked you what went on out there.
I have a lovely wife and she's extremely supportive. One thing that was really nice is that I had the opportunity to call her every night.
Some of the things the media played up--like the building being 28 inches out of plumb--were not true and I had to tell her what was true so she could relax about what was happening.
The one thing that really came through loud and clear--and I know the people of L.A. are good at it, too--was the sense of a community rallying in time of need, finding all kinds of creative ways to support that part of the community that has been hard-hit.
The last day when our team walked off that hill, that's when I could finally relax. That was the first time I could really take a look at the surroundings. It was like coming out of a tunnel. The light at the end of it? I saw a sunset. It was beautiful.
You've been on an adrenaline high for nine days--you've got a job to do and you're getting very little sleep. You're constantly being inundated with devastation and disaster. Once you walk away from it, the crash is pretty hard. For myself, getting into a normal routine--just cutting the lawn, taking the trash out, sleeping when I need it and getting to work again--has been important.