Matt Winn and George Botello demonstrating how a Delsar life detector system uses acoustic sensors to assist in the search for live victims trapped in a collapsed structure in Disaster City.Credit...Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

New York Times: In Disaster City, Texas, Rescues Are a Way of Life

COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS — Moments after a high-rise condominium building in Surfside, Fla., was nearly leveled in a devastating collapse late last month, emergency workers began sifting through concrete and twisted metal for any sign of survivors.

Their urgent mission was not a haphazard scouring of the debris, but a carefully orchestrated plan learned after specialized training in urban search-and-rescue operations. Many of the men and women working around the clock in Florida first spent hours practicing for similar situations in Disaster City, Texas, a one-of-a-kind instructional facility that includes debris from real-world disasters.

There, on a sprawling 52-acre center operated by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service near the flagship campus in College Station, rescue workers learn how to listen for the muffled sounds of survivors, safely lift debris and dig passageways to reach them.

A visit to the training facility last week offered a window into the delicate balance that rescue workers face as they search for survivors amid teetering, often unsafe structures and in grim piles of concrete, steel and personal items. The operation at the Champlain Towers South in Surfside has drawn comparisons to the recovery efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

“It takes specialized equipment, specialized training and specialized people — it takes those three things to do this kind of response,” said Paul Gunnels, the rescue program director at the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. “When you talk about heavy rescue, it takes a little bit of time to get everything in there.”

Elite rescue teams from across America and the globe have traveled to the site to train for delicate rescue missions like the operation in Surfside, where the partial collapse of the condo building nearly two weeks ago was among the deadliest disasters of its kind in the United States. At least 36 people have been recovered from the site, and more than 100 remain missing. Continue Reading

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