Manchester Crews Give Firsthand Account of Joplin Rescue Efforts
Manchester rescue workers update "Patch" readers on the efforts in Joplin after spending days sifting through the rubble in search of survivors and victims.
When the tornado tore through Joplin Sunday night, it flattened everything in its path. At latest count, CNN reports more than 120 dead, but Manchester rescue crews heading back from the disaster Wednesday told Patch upward of 1,500 people are still unaccounted for.
Since the devastation, there's been a desperate search and rescue effort underway as emergency crews, residents and volunteers sift through the rubble nonstop. Among those helping are rescue workers from the West County EMS and Fire Protection District based in Manchester.
(Read Previous Story: Manchester Firefighters Help Joplin Tornado Victims As Death Toll Hits 116)
Deputy Chief Jeff Sadtler tells Town and Country-Manchester Patch that some West County EMS and Fire Protection District crews got the call Sunday night to head to Joplin, and others were called out Monday.
Sadtler said his crews and others he's spoken with describe the scene as devastating.
"These are people that have been to the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina, and they say this is worst they've ever seen," Sadtler said.
Tim Dorsey, deputy chief of training and special operations with West County EMS and Fire Protection District was part of the search and rescue effort in Joplin since the call for help came out Sunday night.
"I was at Katrina for probably a month. Joplin is very different. When morning came around, we were able to see it. It looked like some pictures of Hiroshima when the atomic bomb went off," Dorsey said. "Just devastation. Not a narrow band like what hit in St. Louis. This was just a mile and a half to 2 miles wide of total devastation."
Dorsey is a member of the Missouri Task Force One, which is part of the Federal Urban Search and Rescue Team. He said there are 28 such teams in the United States. As task forces and strike teams arrived in Joplin to help, Dorsey said that community's rescue services were in desperate need of aid.
"In such a small community, they were totally overwhelmed by what happened, as anyone would be, just trying to get a grasp on the situation," Dorsey explained.
He said that as he other members of Task Force One headed back to the St. Louis area Wednesday, Joplin residents remained overwhelmed.
"They're in shock. Some are in recovery phase, but some people were still in shock. They just couldn't believe what they had been through or what they survived," Dorsey said. "It's tragic to see that much devastation and what people are going through in trying to recover. You think about how something like that would affect our community. It's pretty humbling."
Although Dorsey and other members of the task force are back home now, emergency crews continue coordinating search, rescue and recovery efforts in Joplin. Ironically, Dorsey just wrapped up Urban Search and Rescue training last week. Although that training focused on responding to an earthquake, it came into play with the collapse of concrete during the Joplin tornado.
"The Home Depot site was definitely not predicted," Dorsey said. "When you go to a tornado you don't expect a concrete structure to be collapsed like in an earthquake."
And it's not just Home Depot, it's the entire path of the twister. Dorsey and other rescue workers spent days sawing through slabs of concrete that used to be buildings to allow dogs a chance to detect survivors or bodies. Crews are careful not to move the rubble around too much, in case there are survivors trapped underneath in void spaces.
"You try and stabilize it to the best of your ability. The dogs will go around and catch a scent and determine a possible location, if there is a victim. Then we'll put the cameras and listening equipment in to see if there is something in the at area," Dorsey said.
That effort continues even now that Dorsey and his team members have returned from Joplin.
"In the past couple years, they've found survivors up to a couple weeks later trapped in some of those void spaces," Dorsey said. However, he points out the Joplin situation is somewhat different than the aftermath of most tornadoes. "It depends on if there is a void space, and in some of the places there wasn't a void space and the concrete was flattened. There was pretty much very little chance somebody was going to survive in there."
Although Dorsey said it is still a search and rescue mission in Joplin, the recovery of bodies has become the majority of what's happening now.
"As every day and hour ticks on, it slowly diminishes the percentages of finding survivors," Dorsey said. "You go on auto pilot. You're trained. We constantly train to prepare for that, so when an instance like this takes place, people know what to do and how to get from point A to point B. That's why it's so important to train regularly, because they don't happen every day. If you don't plan, you don't get a grasp on it as quickly."
"It's never pleasant. You get into a different mode. It's not for everyone," Sadtler added.
Not only are crews dealing with death and devastation, but storms continue to make their way through the area. Dorsey said they saw severe storms with heavy rain, hail and lightning on Monday, which resulted in two police officers being struck by lightning. They then worked under a tornado warning Tuesday night.
Dorsey said that primary and secondary searches have been done in the hardest hit areas of the city, but rescue workers will still do a third search.
"Just do the triple check due to the massive amount of devastation that was there," Dorsey explained. "It's similar to New Orleans in that there is so much debris that has to be checked out before you can move eight feet of rubble."
And, Dorsey said, as that rubble is searched and removed, more bodies will likely be found. As far as the 1,500 people reportedly still unaccounted for are concerned, he said some of those people are probably alive and have left the area without communicating to others, but admits there are a lot of people still considered missing.
"It just really puts things into perspective and what Mother Nature can really do," Dorsey said. "Puts that reality check on people. You just get numb because nothing ever happens."
In addition to Task Force One, various members of the St. Louis Metro areas's five Urban Search and Rescue teams also responded to help in Joplin. Two ambulance strike teams, including 10 staffed ambulances and supervisors, also responded from the St. Louis area.