Search and rescue team faces challenges as it begins Hard Rock recovery efforts, New Orleans, US
Nine months after the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans, Los Angeles’ collapse, an urban search and rescue team (USAR) is preparing to remove the bodies of two construction workers who were trapped inside. The two men were among three workers killed on 12 October 2019 when part of the 18-storey building crumbled to the ground during construction. Authorities have said that it was too dangerous to retrieve the bodies of Wimberly, whose remains are trapped on the 11th floor and Arreola, who is on an eight-floor deck. The USAR team is overseen by the New Orleans Fire Department and its members come from both the Fire Department and New Orleans EMS. The Urban Search and Rescue Team (USAR), said their biggest concerns are severe weather and threat of further collapse. “We’ve responded to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, cause of tornadoes, we’ve responded to flooding incidents in Texas, hurricanes in South Carolina, hurricanes in Florida,” NOFD Deputy Chief of Special Operations, Joseph Wheeler said. Wheeler oversees the USAR’s training, ensuring that the members are ready to deploy within 12 hours after a disaster and prepared to be self-sufficient for at least three days. Beyond their technical expertise, Wheeler says the team is especially empathetic in life and death situations.
The team’s first deployment was after Hurricane Katrina, rescuing people from rising water in the Lower 9th Ward. “They bring a perspective of losing everything and a sense of calm (knowing that) we’ve been through it all,” said Wheeler. Leading the USAR team is Captain Danny Simon. He’s been part of the team since its inception, and he’s been on scene at the Hard Rock Hotel every day since the collapse. “We immediately went in with canines,” says Simon, describing the initial response last October, “and we searched through the entire building from the ground level to the roof for about two weeks to see if there were any live victims … and unfortunately there weren’t.”
In the weeks and months since then, the USAR’s plan to remove the bodies has evolved as the ruins of the building have become more dangerous over time. “The easiest way to describe it is gravity,” says Simon. “The rebar has just been pulling down for nine months now and it’s just shifting (as) gravity is taking affect.”
Simon added that certain sections of the building that they were able to go into initially, are inaccessible today because parts of the building have “caved in.” “There’s a constant chance of further collapse, so there’s just areas around the building that you can’t even walk because there’s always a danger of collapse and since the crews started demolition, it makes it even worse,” Simon said.
The demolition contractor hired by the hotel’s local developers has cleared away the largest debris from the areas around each victim, on two different floors, making a path for Captain Simon to lead six members of the team to do the recovery. “We hope to be working on a flat surface,” says Simon but they may have to do some “hand-picking of debris” around the bodies.
In addition, the USAR team is responsible for collecting and documenting potential evidence to be used by forensics experts, to determine how the victims died and by legal experts to determine liability issues involving the hotel’s construction. “Everything (will be) documented that you can think of,” said Simon and “anthropologists will be on standby.”
Several days of rain over the past two weeks has slowed the USAR’s mission to remove the bodies but Simon said the team is ready to do the job “safely and respectfully” to bring some closure to the victims’ families.
Deputy Chief Wheeler will be watching from the ground, staying in contact with the team by two-way radio, his fingers crossed. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle because you don’t know what’s going to happen until they start moving things around. Hopefully the plan will be executed as drawn up and we won’t have any difficulties,” Deputy Chief Wheeler said.
Buildings near the site have now been torn down to allow a crane access to the rubble and infrastructure in the area had to be protected, McConnell said. Beginning Wednesday, 22 July 2020, there will be a no-fly zone to keep drones away. “This is a tricky operation and we want to make sure that everyone is safe,” the fire chief said, adding that the recovery process is challenging because of the amount of debris the victims are under.
“We would not have taken this long; we're over 10 months now. It's very frustrating for, obviously, rescuers who do this for a living. And you can only imagine what it is for the families, what they're going through,” he said.
McConnell said Wimberly will be more difficult to reach because of the number of floors hanging over his body. He said reaching Arreola will be challenging as well and will require teams to remove rubble that's already collapsed.
The chief said he and Mayor LaToya Cantrell have been in constant contact with the families of the two victims.
Sources: NBC News