Working a disaster of that magnitude is not easily forgotten. (Especially the smell of rotting human flesh.)
But what I think is significant is the connection between that disaster and the current state of disaster rescue. Those saved in Haiti and Chile owe a lot to what we did — FOR THE FIRST TIME — in Mexico 25 years ago.
Someone at the U.S. Agency for International Development was smart enough to realize that dogs that search for lost kids in national forests might be used to find survivors in an urban natural disaster.
When the earthquake struck a convention of dog handlers specializing in rescue efforts was meeting in Texas. AID called the conference organizers and asked for volunteers to go to Mexico.
The conference organizers were already in action before the call came. First the volunteers — with their dogs — stepped forward. Then the rest of the conference participants pooled their resources on hand — including money — to make sure each team member — human and canine — was fully outfitted with safety gear and what ever else would be needed.
They were ready do go within 10 hours of the first earthquake.
At the same time the U.S. Bureau of Mines mobilized another set of experts to assist the rescue effort with technology previously only used in finding and rescuing miners.
Unfortunately the Mexican government refused to accept any help from the rest of the world. (“We can handle this ourselves,” they said with false pride.)
The next day a second earthquake struck. (I think this one was 7.9 on the Richter scale.) At that point the Mexican government said, “If any one wants to send help we’ll take it.” That wording allowed the government “cover” to its nationalistic base by saying they never asked for help.
So on the third day after the first earthquake what seemed like dozens of C-141s, C-5s and C-131s broke through the smog-filled skies of Mexico City and landed at the city’s international airport. Inside one were the dog teams and the Bureau of Mine experts. (It seemed at the time that U.S. cargo planes were landing every 5-10 minutes with rescue and relief equipment.)
By a quirk of fate my wife and I were at the airport to help check in and record the incoming experts and equipment. The plane with the search and rescue teams was supposed to include explosive experts. The ambassador wanted to meet them and get things moving so that the unsafe buildings in the city could be taken down as soon as possible. When it was clear the plane held the SAR folks, the ambassador turned to Lisa and told her to take care of them and then walked away.
First thing we did was find the leaders of each team, found out what they thought they could do in this situation and find out what they needed to get started.
Within 2 hours we were in a meeting room in the Sheraton next to the embassy going over a map of the city with Mexican government officials about where the searches should be concentrated.
The officials were focused on areas where government building were damaged even though the first quake occurred before the work day began and the second was after the end of the work day (assuming anyone went into the damaged buildings after the first quake.)
Residential areas were second on their priority list.
The dog teams surveyed the areas requested by the government and got no hits. (No live or dead responses.) Despite the government’s desire to stay there longer, the dog team leader directed his people to start searching residential areas damaged by the quake.
And it was fortunate they did. In the end, the dog teams were often the first experts to get to areas that had survivors. No one from the Mexican government or the groups taking Mexican government direction had come by even days after the first quake.
By then the seismic and camera teams had figured out the best way to use their technology to rescue people.
At first, no one was sure how to use the sensitive seismic equipment or underground camera. After a few trials, the three team leaders figured out how to make the maximum use of the strengths of each group.
At first the dogs would survey an area. Anywhere the dogs would give a “live” indication the dog handler would place a flag. Then the seismic team would get all work in the area stopped and place sensors around the area to “listen” for movement or some other form of life. If nothing came from the initial “listen,” the team leader would have someone from the Mexican police use a bullhorn to see if anyone in the rubble could respond. Generally the cop asked for people to respond by bang on stone or metal to indicate they heard the call.
Once the seismic team “heard” responses, the cop would then try to narrow down what floor the survivors were on when the earthquakes happened. (We could easily see how the buildings collapsed and so could also estimate where someone from the fifth floor, for example, would possibly be in the rubble.) The cop would say something like, “Tap twice if you were on the 1st floor.” Wait a bit. Then repeat the call for each floor of the building.
Once the floor(s) of the survivor were nailed down, the seismic team would tighten it perimeter and repeat the process. In the end, they could usually indicate where the survivors were within 10 feet.
Rescue workers would then start removing rubble in the direction set by the seismic team. After the first layer was taken off, however, the rescuers knew they needed to see the structure of the next set of levels.
That is where the camera crew came in.
The camera was about the size of a tennis ball at the end of a cable with lights around the lens. (Remember this is 1985. Cameras this size were cutting edge at the time.)
The camera operator would poke the lens through a hole in the rubble. The rescue team leader would sit in the control van and survey the cavity looking for the best way to remove material without causing the whole structure to collapse on the survivors. With practice the remove, poke, look, remove process moved more quickly.
In one dramatic rescue, just as the camera poked through a survivor grabbed the cable and camera (he only thought it was a set of lights) and moved it to see the condition of his wife. The resulting picture was an extreme closeup of the woman’s eye with one tear coming down as she and her husband realized that after 4 days they were going to be rescued.
The camera team withdrew the cable, attached a baggie with some water-soaked cotton and passed it back through. This was the first water the couple had since the quakes.
Within a couple of hours the couple were taken to one of the few remaining hospitals. The husband lost an arm in the process. Fortunately for him the steel beam that took his arm did it in a way that was clean and sealed the wound almost immediately. Otherwise he could have easily bled out and died within hours of the accident.
Ironically the husband worked for the Mexican Bureau of Mines. He told the U.S. team leaders later from his hospital bed that when he heard the cops calling out for people to identify their floors, he knew exactly what was happening because he ran similar exercises for Mexican miners.
Along the way we were able to find teams of experts who came to Mexico on their own to help. I located an Israeli medical team with ambulance looking for a place to go to help. I attached them to the camera team. A bit later I met a Venezuelan construction company owner who flew his “A-team” to Mexico to help with the rescue efforts. They too were looking for a place where they could be helpful. I hooked them up with the seismic and camera team.
The dog team leader started finding dog teams from other countries. We got the team leaders together each morning and evening to ensure there was no doubling of efforts.
All our ad-hoc activities were required because so much of the Mexican leadership was confused. Most of the government buildings were damaged. And the political system in Mexico at the time did not allow for decentralized responses to anything. Everything was directed from a central command. Unfortunately the central command was wiped out.
(I have a theory that it was the earthquake that provided the main push to toss out the ruling PRI and allow Mexico to start developing into a serious multi-party democracy. It also prompted more self-help groups in the country.)
Now think about what is happening in Haiti and Chile.
After the earthquakes in those two countries, dog search teams were among the first rescuers. The seismic and camera teams were hardly needed in Haiti because of the type of construction in the country but I understand the technology was used in Chile.
And what was it that got us good news about the Chilean mine accident? It was an underground camera. The 2010 version of the unit that saved lives in Mexico.
After my experiences in Mexico I have to tip my hat to the SAR teams that put themselves in harm’s way to save lives. And I shudder to think how many lives would have been lost in Mexico and in subsequent disasters if someone did not have the intellectual leap to include never-before-done SAR techniques in the rescue scenarios.
And what new technology is out there today that could be used to save lives but no one has yet made the connection?
It would be nice if these pioneers could be recognized for their work and foresight. (Okay, the Mexican government gave each of the SAR teams I worked with special recognition awards. But nada from the US government.)