When Nebraska Task Force One based out of Lincoln arrived on scene at International Nutrition Monday afternoon, the challenges they faced at the collapsed animal feed processing plant were many, to say the least.
Among those major challenges: the wind. Lincoln Fire and Rescue Bat. Chief of Special Operations and Nebraska Task Force One leader Brad Thavenet spoke with 1011 News at our studios Wednesday afternoon, after returning from the deadly disaster in Omaha.
How bad were the winds?
"The winds started picking up, those 40 to 50 mile gusts started coming in...all that hanging steel and concrete slabs started to sway in the breeze," said Thavenet. "That became a big safety issue."
One of the big concerns, of course, was what might happen with the winds howling through the open and now-vulnerable structure.
"And we all know that for every action there's a reaction of some sort. What is gonna go? Is something gonna break loose? Is something now gonna topple? I have people inside there and darkness is setting in," said Thavenet. So, for safety's sake, after recovering the first body at 5:16 p.m. Monday, they decided to quit for the night and come back Tuesday morning when the winds died down, in order to recover the second body.
In order to enter the structure, in which three floors collapsed on each other, it first had to be shored up in a meticulous, time-consuming fashion. There were hanging concrete slabs, concrete columns and beams, steel shelving, conveyor belts, fork lifts, and even an ac unit, all caved down. A big mess of rubble, concrete and debris and twisted steel shelving is what awaited anyone who ventured in.
"We have a structural engineer who's a member of the Task Force, he would look at the structure, he would assess what would be wracked or off-center or not level or what he thinks has been compromised due to the catastrophic failure of the structure and say this area needs, before we can operate any further at this structure, this needs to be stabilized," said Thavenet.
Claw hammers, sledge hammers, cutting devices, giant airbags, crow bars and shovels, were just some of the tools they brought in to cut, move, and secure various chunks of debris that had come crashing down. To shore up parts of the building, Thavenet said it required turning an unstable environment into a stable environment. The Task Force used 4x4s or 6x6 heavy timber posts to create a temporary column to replace the concrete one that was compromised.
Much of the work was slow and incremental, again for safety's sake. "That became the painstaking; you know what's gonna be the reaction; if I move this, is something gonna fall somewhere else or cause a chain reaction or domino effect. So that becomes the mentally fatiguing part."
No Task Force members were hurt in the recovery process.
The slow pace of work was intentional...as to not get anyone injured. "Everybody works very slow, very safe and very methodical."
Bitter cold temperatures were also a major challenge. Task Force members would work, and then go get warm, to avoid hypothermia. In sub-freezing temperatures, it's easy to get distracted, lose dexterity and lose focus. "That's the last thing you want on a slow, meticulous, methodical operation."
The second victim was recovered late Tuesday afternoon.
While their mission was that of recovery, Thavenet knows it was very important that the bodies of the men who died be retrieved as quickly and professionally as possible.
"You're offering closure to a family. You're giving them peace and comfort by pulling their loved one out. So to them, you are rescuing their loved one to bring them closure," said Thavenet.
There were 24 members of Task Force One who were up in Omaha. All returned safely. Members were put through a stress debriefing. Counseling is offered if any member needs it.
Also, Task Force One will, over the next several days, review what went right in their operation, and what could be done better the next time they are called out to a similar situation.
"If we settle for complacency, then we're not doing our jobs."