Disaster In Real Time
Most days of training are planned in advance. This time we had a big 7 acre warehouse of three floors waiting for us on a gray and windy 1st of March. Rain threatened as we pulled in and unloaded crates. October that year had been wonderful in our disaster course with Bill Dotson. I had learned so much, and each day we had someplace to play, we had practiced our skills. Today was no different...except the weather
The first was runaways to get the dogs up and playing. Practice barking 30 seconds at "trapped people" and waiting for the handlers to come and help free and reward our dogs. Fox was on and he was building his bark to a full time of 30 seconds. Wooly was still recovering from an attack by a big dog that injured his back. But he too was practicing his find and refind.
Five people, 7 dogs worked for 3 hours. Staging cadaver and live finds, we had no way of knowing what lay in store for us that night. Sometimes we could hear the rain on the roof. But it was so muted we had no way of measuring the intensity.
Our last was a staged "earthquake" drill of falling debris. Boxes with a person "trapped" inside. We had used a large wooden packing crate to hide the victim and covered it with many small cardboard boxes. We had "traveled" by golf cart to hide our tracks. The dogs were assigned a sector, and turned loose. Fox was in full search mode and soon had located a pile of boxes. A decoy...he searched and moved on. Nice check and since no human was there, move in to the next aisle. There another bigger pile was blocking his way. This time he stated to climb and move boxes. I stood back and waited. Soon he was grumbling and digging. I waited...it was not the indication I wished. Small as a Schip is, he had managed to get deep into the pile...BARK BARK BARK rang clear...again...again...I had a find! Good Dog and I moved in to reward and give him a treat. Practice for the real thing. After we had all had a turn to work, we started for home. The rain was coming down hard. Gray dark clouds swirled over head...threatening. I had to hurry as I was buying a new Van that day and still had to make it before 3 PM to sign the papers. It was slow going as the rain blinded me and driving was hazardous. I arrived as the next set of storms did, and hurried inside to sign. The storm raged...wind blowing, rain pounded the windows...I heard the alarms go off in a distance.
"Cut to the papers" I told my salesman..."that is tornado warnings. Let me sign and get out of here!" I turned and my daughter and two dogs were standing at the main glass doors. "Its bad and we're scared Mom"...I know hon, let's go home.
As we loaded under the over hang, I looked up in time to see two twisters form and move across the sky...Decisions...Run or hide. I looked West and it was clear. Run. I put it in gear and made tracks. I moved out of the rain in just a mile. So far we were lucky. The cell phone rang...."We have a call from Saline County...NOW!" We had to roll....I was still 5 minutes away from my house.
As we hit the drive, Ray unloaded the extras and I reloaded our search packs. Grabbed gloves, rain gear and lights. It was 3:50pm. I was on the road with Sharon in 15 minutes. Still no rain. My tired dogs and aching bones disappeared as I drove to the site of the twisters. But I also listened to the radio to hear about MORE touch downs. While we had played disaster, the real thing had moved through 260 miles of Arkansas touching and destroying towns and lives.
It was so hard to get through to the search zone. No lights, no signs to mark who we were. Would have to fix that soon. The Ranger moved us as best he could to a small and littered safety parking. One Block away was total chaos. I looked and knew death awaited me. The briefing told us of 40 trailers gone. People everywhere, not sure of who was missing. Three bodies lay covered on open ground. More waited our recovery. GO! they told us...
I talked with my team members who had gotten through. Larry, Sharon and I. Four SAR dogs. Two disaster trained. one young cadaver dog...and Bubba who can and will do it all. The idea was to start with the first house each side, as you finished, move on to the next...passing your search buddy and checking to make sure they all were ok. My head spun as I looked...WHERE do I start? A small voice echoed inside telling me..."each building is a new search. Move slow, check close...and stay safe" Thanks to Bill Dotson's seminar...I had the courage to face the impossible.
The task lay before us. As I surveyed the dangers, a sight that will stay with me for ever...etched against the sky, the frame work of a long mobile home was twisted up and around the remains of two 50 foot pine trees. Like two figures pointed upwards to heaven in some strange dance. The first trailer was to have three people. A woman and two children. It was on its side and broken open. The large pine that had given shade all summer, now lay across the top. It was a tangled mess. I surveyed the safe approach, and climbed on the lower piles of rubble. Fox looked up under the trailer...moved off to the left and jumped onto the tree trunk. He turned and walked up and into the trailer!! He had solved the problem of being little...as he walked down limbs and branches to check each part of the home. nothing...and he walks back to the roots and jumps down. Moves on.
I had put my hand up to brace as I watched him. The feel of material made me check...and there on a branch that had broken off, was a piece of insulation with a Timex watch wrapped around the stub of the remaining branch. It was still keeping time. I was to see many strange things that day. This one will remain with me forever.
I check with Sharon...I see her off in the next pile. I don't see Larry. I hear banging from the next trailer....My heart races..."Are you there" I yell??? Can you hear me...And about that time I look up to see Ralph the Dobie peering over the top of the pile. Relief and laughter surged...should have known as Fox was searching not BARKING! As we finished the second pile, I heard Fox BARK...I tried to hurry as I was still not in a place I could see. BARK BARK...and I rounded the end of the trailer remains. The next one was almost whole. A very large tree was laying across the middle. A man rose up from inside and spoke as we approached...
"I have found my Friend" and he pointed down inside. "He is gone...but I will wait with him for the recovery team" I called my dog, as Sharon did hers and we moved on to search again.
Death. A young man who had saved a neighbor girl, lay inside under that tree. She had remained alive and safe thanks to him. It is so hard, but I have to pull myself together and continue the work. Slowly we work the three blocks of the ridge. So large an area, so many lives changed forever.
As we moved into the street, the light of day was fading to dark night. The Ranger asked us if we could move to a new site where 45 homes were gone and no one could get in to the area to search. "yes" and we began to move out...WAIT a voice called..."are you not going to search the lower trailer park?" We looked into the small valley and it was completely covered in broken trailers, trees and people.
"My grand children are in there" he pleaded. The ranger called..."We need you in Royal Oaks".
I asked if he needed a ride out to the Medical station to see if the family had checked in there. He said yes...and climbed into our Van. I asked if he was sure they had been inside the trailer..."No...just where they should have been." he answered. (He found them later, safe at the check in site) That search area had 6 dead and hundreds injured.
Royal Oaks. A small beautiful community of tall pines, wooded lots and mixture of houses and trailers. Gone.
We staged at a Baptist Church. Checked in and told to wait. One hour passed. As we waited I used my cell phone as a relay station to help families. First to Ray at home, where he called and passed information to the families waiting outside the disaster area...God we could have been searching at the first site. Soon a police officer informed us that the Gas lines were open, broken and leaking. A full evacuation was under way till the gas company could shut it off. It was now about 11 PM. We had some choices...get some sleep and start later. Or wait. We waited till midnight, then off to sleep. To return at day break as the dogs were very tired.
At 5:30 AM we reported back to the main staging area and were given a sector to clear. Back to Royal Oaks of last night. Four were already known dead. Two more were missing. It was going to be a long wet day.
All of us put on the rain gear and gloves and walked up the first hill. The total devastation was frightening. And sad. This had been a happy community. Full of life. Now nothing moved but us.
We divided up...and this time we had Marty to help. Each set of dogs took a street. One on each side...and again we checked as we passed the other team. House by house we moved up and down the small valley community. Trees and homes were mere splinters, laying like pick up sticks across each other. Some homes spared, little damage, while the house next to it vanished. Roads were non existent. Just covered with trees and debris. Fox was working steady. His little body up, in, out and on to the next pile. It was daybreak. Light enough to see, dark enough to be dangerous. The piles began to all look the same. I moved so slow from one to the other. Blocking the horror, and seeing only what my mind needed. Safety...danger zones...dogs. But sometimes pain from a lost memory of a family. Once a small pile of pictures, a radio and a few unbroken dishes. As I moved on it began to rain. I had to go back and cover that pile. So little left...I must offer protection to a few precious things they had salvaged last night before being evacuated.
At one point I had seen blood all over the ground. The dogs had ignored it. As I searched, I had found a covered body of a dog. It was dead, but set aside for burial later. Not human, so ignored by the dogs. We moved on. This happened again and again. Cats, Dogs, Rabbits. All paid the final price. Not even birds sang.
In one trailer Fox began to whine, and tried to climb up. The neighbor had come to talk. His house completely untouched, he told me the man who had been at home, had been injured (which explained the blood Fox had found in the bedroom), and how he had walked through all the blocked roads to find the church where his wife waited. A miracle indeed as the night was black and landmarks destroyed. Injured, he had just wanted to find her to make sure she too was safe.
As the day wore on, we approached the last road of what once had been homes. One rested out on the edge of a ravine. Hanging. I heard movement. Fox showed interest, looked and moved on. I had to go check too....and it had a large Dalmatian dog inside. I called and he hung his head. Not moving. His eyes crazed with fear, he sat unmoving. No way for me to safely go to him. The house was very balanced and could slide into the ravine if we walked inside. I asked the National Guardsman, who was our radio backup, to call and report it to the humane society to check out. We had seen many loose and roaming dogs all day. This one was different and in pain. (It was picked up later and it had a broken back. The Spirit was set free).
The next hill was clean. No debris. Cars untouched. I looked and said aloud, "thank God they made it safe." "Why do you say that?" asked the guardsman? "Because the cars are clean and look just driven in." "No...They were here last night when we cut the road open."
I approached the edge with interest. It was like a shotgun blast of a match stick house, all down the ravine, Nothing remained to label it a house. Gone. Smashed. And Fox had something he was indicating on...half way to the bottom.
I began the climb to the side where he lay. "What" I asked. Dig, grumble...dig. Down. Human remains. I called back to Sharon who had just returned from the other ravine.. "I know you're tired too, but this is human and we need to check." And one by one, we began to spread out on the sides of the small ravine and search. I took Point. Walking the trees, bent or straight down the center. The edges crisscrossed and overlapped, making it much harder for the big dogs. I saw Bubba try to jump on a tree trunk, miss and fall back into the mixture. Up and again with Sharon's help Bub made the jump and kept searching. Soon I had four dogs working beneath me as I walked on top of the trees.. The Schip, Fox, small and agile, wound his way along the tree branches, over and under. Up on a branch to check...down on the ground where he could reach. It took 30 minutes to reach the bottom.
Fox was first in and digging. "What" I ask. He reaches into a brush pile and brings me a bone. Covered with tissue. He set it at my feet, touched it and grumbled. Human.
GOOD DOG! I praise. Just wanting to be sick, I had to give him all the praise in the world and cheerfully ask him to show me more. We stepped over a dead Labrador, and searched deeper into the pile. I called back to Sharon to recheck this pile.
A man on a backhoe came over and watched. He offered me an explanation. "Mam, We took a lady out last night from that tree. She was impaled on that limb over there."
It was directly above the pile I searched. I thank him and move on. Please let him be right and no more lay here. The lady had lived in that house that had set at the top of that ravine. Two of them had died. Here, among the tangle. I said a small prayer as we continued the search.
It was now 7 hours into the search and the dogs were all tired and slow. I pulled my team, Fox coming in to get his reward. The rain continued. The sector was clear. No one found. I report in to the Guard and he gives us a lift out in his truck.
I sit quietly. watching as we pass people returning now that we have cleared the zone. I see a woman moving in shock. Picking up a child's toy and placing it into the car. Again moving out to pick up a piece of clothing. Returning a piece at a time to the Car. Each one a treasured find. Pictures, dishes. A memory. Life is gone as they know it. We move on. I crane my neck to look back. Sadness rushes over me. I hug Fox and tears start up and blind me. I will not cry.
We report in and learn that all are accounted for ..the living and the dead. Over 40 will have lost their lives last night across Arkansas. Tired and hurting, I load Fox into a Suburban with Sharon's dogs. I spray him with water, and towel him dry. Check his feet for glass and cuts. I tuck him into his warm dry crate and walk off to find dry comfort for me.
Marty has just had her first real search. As a newer member, she was my scout. I hug her and we look for a dry towel. The Church where we are staged, offer us coffee and a room to change. I dig out dry clothes, and Fox's wet towel. It is all I have. I am warm and dry now. And the coffee warms the inside. Nothing takes away the cold of my mind. Pictures. Of lives changed forever. At least I had helped. Fox had done all I had trained him to do. We were a good Team. All of us. Each well trained team of Human and dog. Each Team had worked together, a unit, and made a success of this day.
At home, Ray and I talk. I take a shower and head for bed to rest. Fox beside me, we sleep for hours.
On Monday I have a speaking engagement. I tell of the search. It is good to talk it out to these unknown people. The sharing of our dogs, their happy faces. Knowing they will help get things for the needy of Little Rock. Again, another job done to bring aid to the needy.
Thursday I have a rash. My ears are hot and welts form. By Friday I am in the emergency room. I have chemical poisoning. Somewhere in that search I have gotten into a chemical or mixture of chemicals, that have burnt my skin. I have to take meds to clear it up. Fox is still fine. To this day I have the rash. Always. A chemical deep inside. It will be with me forever...as will the memories.
It is three years now. The scars of the land have healed. On the first year anniversary I had a trip back to heal my inner self. I cried and knew I had buried it a long time. The picture flashed before me. But as I walked among the new homes, looking at the tangled trees here and there, I saw rebirth. The survival of the human spirit. Growing, returning, making it. I walked and talked to those I found outside. One of the homes is a new trailer. I ask if they had recovered the small pile of treasures I had covered...OH MY!! The kids run for mom. She isn't there. “Yes “they say. She was crying with pleasure that some one had covered her things from the rain. They had not believed her you see. Now they had a story to tell her when she came home. They had met the dog and human who had saved their things.
I left warmed to the core. I had made a difference. Fox had given his very best and we together had made one small gift that day. That is what life is....a giving. I could return to many disasters after that. The courage of a lifetime granted with a few kind words of a nameless child.
Fox and I will keep searching. That is to be our gift to the community. Life or death. Our courage was born that day. And beside me walked a small black dog. A Schipperke. Fox. Wooly's Foxy Image CD AX TT CGC SAR/A.