CA-TF5 Pros for Disasters

Pros Respond When Disaster Strikes

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Bob Scheibel watched everything as it unfolded on the television while solemnly packing his Mexican vacation into his luggage. He and his wife headed as fast as they could for the border. He knew that sooner or later he was going to get a call to go to New York.

It was sooner. By midday on that very Tuesday, Scheibel was on the only non-fighter military plane allowed in the skies over the United States, flying north and east.

But Scheibel’s services were needed so desperately that, before the end of the day of the terrorist attacks, he was standing on the unextinguished rubble pile of what had been 1 million tons of World Trade Center and all that had occupied them.

A structural engineer on most days, Scheibel is also a first responder for Orange County’s California Task Force 5 Search and Rescue, one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 28 Urban Search and Rescue national task forces, called to come when things have come crashing down, no matter how.

The structural engineer part is no accident. Scheibel knows why things are built like they are. It helps mightily to know so much about structures once they have become unstable ruins, with tons of collapsed concrete and twisted steel standing so suddenly and capriciously in the way of saving lives or risking rescuers who want to try.

The rubble at the World Trade Center from the first day was divided into zones for searching. Scheibel’s job was to manage and oversee all areas. To decipher what he was being told by everyone there, “to distill and advise, to give direction for the searching, for what would be most effective,” he says.

All this was done with the New York Fire Department in charge, with federal government oversight, with Scheibel – and everyone else – in stark realization and profound awareness “every minute” of the enormity of what had happened to the nation and to thousands of individual lives.

The best thing to do, he says, was your job.

With him, in a kind of chaotic, orchestrated ballet at every turn, are the searchers, the canine officers and their dogs, the medical personnel, other technical specialists, logistics experts and communication pros.

But when Scheibel gets on site, there are a lot of people counting on him to solve, bit by bit, a monstrous construction puzzle wrought from some very recent hell.

Bruce Newell is an architect. He and Scheibel both live in Modjeska Canyon with their wives. Both are on the elite FEMA squad, which is made up of only 5,000 members nationwide. And both serve Orange County Fire Authority as reservists. Which means they’ve also been known to fight a lot of wildfires and a few earthquakes in their time. But it’s the national tragedies they remember vividly.

Newell was sent to New Orleans when Katrina made landfall near there on Aug. 29, 2005. For 20 days, he says, his job was not all that architectural – he spent a lot of time “telling people where to cut” to retrieve bodies.

It was not, he emphasizes, the structural nightmare that earthquakes and tornadoes can be. It was, for the most part, wet and endless.

Both men are, for being “over 50,” in phenomenal physical shape. That is because the kind of “volunteer” work they do has what Newell calls “one of the highest ratios of waiting and training possible.” More specifically, these men train literally daily for jobs that could be months, even years, apart.

“The trick is staying prepared and mentally ready at any point,” says Newell.

Their go bags are always packed. They train like every other Orange County firefighter. They keep up on the latest in their respective professional fields. They keep their blood pressure really low.

And, in the case of Newell, they run, bike and swim in triathlons.

Neither man is voluble. They do not tell stories about they time they feared for their own safety. Or the time they saved someone’s life…

Read full story at OC Register