Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Members Receive National Recognition for Heroic Actions

Today Fairfax County Fire and Rescue’s VATF1-USA1 members Lieutenant Bobby Garza, Lieutenant Larry Mullin, and Technician Ryland Chapman, as well as CATF2-USA2 Captain Gerald Gonzales, Firefighter Daniel McKeen, and Firefighter Paramedic Matthew Prasch (Los Angeles County, CA) were honored with the prestigious Ben Franklin Award for Valor from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). These members were recognized for their heroic actions during the Nepal earthquake response in 2015.

The IAFC/Motorola Solutions Ben Franklin Award for Valor is the IAFC’s most prestigious award and is presented annually at Fire-Rescue International (FRI) by the IAFC and Motorola Solutions. This award honors a firefighter for his or her expert training, professional service, and dedication to duty displayed in saving a human life.

In 2015, following the Nepal earthquake, Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Teams USA-2 members Captain Gonzales, Firefighter Specialist McKeen, Firefighter Paramedic Prasch, and USA-1 members Lieutenant Garza, Technician Chapman, and Lieutenant Mullin were part of a small team that was airlifted into the remote village of Singati by US Marine Corps (USMC) helicopters.

Within minutes, the crew from USA-1 joined Prasch and McKeen who had landed a few minutes prior to USA-1’s arrival. They had begun to gather victims in a casualty collection and treatment area. The crew began receiving reports that as many as eight people were trapped in a vehicle that had been partially buried by a landslide.

The two teams combined their resources. As squad leader, Garza sent McKeen, Mullin, Chapman, and Berger to investigate reports of people trapped in the landslide. Garza and Prasch remained behind to treat the injured, assist with loading the more critical patients onto helicopters, and establish a base camp at the landing zone site.

En route to the landslide site, the team received a report from a father that his teenage son was trapped in a collapsed building. With daylight rapidly fading, the crew split into two teams to investigate both sites as quickly as possible. Mullin and Chapman went to the building collapse while McKeen and Berger proceeded to the landslide. McKeen and Berger arrived at the landslide site and quickly determined that all of the occupants in the partially buried vehicle were deceased.

Chapman and Mullin traveled with the father to investigate the collapsed building. The team had to cross a river via a cable/rope bridge at the base of a steep valley. Upon arriving at the site, they conducted a series of searches beginning with a hailing search and progressing to a technical search using a search camera to explore small voids. Each search failed to produce any signs of life. They then used the limited materials available to construct some makeshift shoring on the downhill side of the collapsed building so that they could enter and investigate some voids. The crew was fully aware that this material would likely shift and fail in the event of an aftershock so they devised the best escape plan they could; jump downhill from the building and into a rocky ravine or dive into the building’s voids if they could determine the threat from a landslide was greater. Again, no signs of life were found during these searches.

With daylight fading and Garza reporting that the last flight of the day would be arriving soon, the team conducted a final search based upon the father’s insistence that his son was in the building. Chapman entered a small void. After moving some materials, he was able to make voice contact with a woman who was trapped. At nearly the same time, the landing zone crew called Mullin and Chapman back to the landing zone so they could be transported back to the airport on the last helicopter. Mullin and Chapman reported that they had detected a victim alive and trapped inside of a collapsed building. The decision was made that all personnel from USA-1 and USA-2 would remain in Singati, to work on extricating the trapped woman, and if all went well, they would be transported back to Kathmandu the following morning.

The last helicopter arrived in Singati carrying Gonzales (USA-2). It was subsequently loaded with patients and DART Leader Bill Berger. Before departing, the crew was given a satellite phone. Unfortunately, operating features of the device prevented the crew from using the satellite phone to contact USA-1 or USA-2 members in Kathmandu or Nepal. Additionally, they had limited success contacting US air controllers. The aircraft crew told USAR members that an aircraft would be back at first light to pick them up. After stabilizing the remaining patients in the treatment area, the members of USA-1 and USA-2 reported to the building collapse site and began to assist with the rescue operation.

The collapsed structure had been a 3 to 4-story masonry building located on a steep hillside. When the earthquake occurred, a large portion of the building had essentially tipped over and then flipped over. With the collapsed section of the building inverted, the victim was lying on the ceiling of the third level with the floor of the third level on top of her. The remaining lower levels were stacked on top of this in a “pancake collapse.” Adding to its instability, significant aftershocks occurred every few minutes with several being strong enough to trigger landslides in the area of the rescue operation. The team was limited to only a few tools.

The crew was not initially able to visually locate the woman. A decision was made to try to breach the concrete above her and tunnel down to gain access. A few civilians and a road maintenance crew were enlisted to assist. The civilians and USAR personnel took turns using a sledge hammer to breach the floors and ceilings in an attempt to reach the woman.

Simultaneously, a small group of USAR members worked to tunnel towards the woman from an opening on the side of the building. The opening and “tunnel” were only large enough for one rescuer to enter. During the rescue, a second rescuer would enter behind the first one and, in the event of a significant aftershock, pull the first rescuer out by the ankles. Loose bricks were used to shore the tunnel as progress was made.

After three and a half hours, Chapman and McKeen had finished moving a large piece of concrete from the woman’s legs. Suddenly, a strong aftershock occurred. The split-second decision was made to pull the woman from the debris due to safety concerns. She was removed from the building and placed on a wood door that Garza and Gonzales procured from the ruble to serve as a backboard.

The woman was assessed and found to have major head, pelvic, and lower extremity injuries. She was carried on the make-shift backboard to the base camp by Gonzales, Garza, Prasch, and members of the Nepalese road crew. McKeen, Chapman and Mullin re-entered the collapsed building to continue to search for victims. Unfortunately they were only able to locate deceased victims, including one that was believed to be the missing teenage boy. Once they were satisfied that no additional live victims were inside the building, they returned to the base camp.

Back at base camp, additional casualties continued to arrive, including a severely injured man. Medical care for the two severely injured victims continued through the night with team members rotating between resting and providing care to the growing number of injured. The injured woman’s condition fluctuated significantly throughout the night and required constant attention. To compound their difficulties, the aftershocks were triggering landslides that the team could hear but not see due to the darkness.

At daybreak, additional patients presented at the base camp and personnel assessed and treated them as best as possible. A tourist with a satellite phone walked into the base camp in the early morning and the crew used his phone to make contact with Fire Station 21 in Fairfax County, VA, where a message was conveyed back to Team USA’s Base of Operations. The message stated that team members were okay, that they had extricated one patient and had two critical patients, relayed their coordinates, and identified the need for medical evacuation of two critical and eight non-critical patients.

The information was conveyed to the USMC’s Air Operations Officer and helicopters were tasked to the mission. Aircraft from the Indian military arrived shortly after sunrise and transported the most seriously injured from the village to a field hospital. Two USMC aircraft arrived shortly afterwards and transported the rescuers and remaining victims.

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