Amid Chaos, Rescuers Worked with Precision

Drills helped prepare agencies, hospitals for explosion at plant


Dec. 8--Within a few minutes of Wednesday's blast at Falk Corp., the first firefighters and paramedics reached the scene and found a grim tableau: dozens of workers, faces black with soot, some bleeding, some carrying badly injured colleagues, many wandering aimlessly in shock.

"It was definitely one of the most chaotic scenes I've pulled into," said James Youngblood, a 16-year firefighter who drove in with the first unit to respond, Engine 28.

Still, the chaos was met with relatively calm precision, first by Falk employees, then by firefighters and paramedics who worked amid smoke and debris to set up triage centers and to transport the injured, and then by the doctors and nurses who had been alerted to the disaster and were ready when the casualties arrived.

Government agencies schooled with disaster drills worked from a crisis room, determining which emergency vehicles were needed and sending crews to see whether houses near the blast had suffered structural damage.

"The response people, they did a fantastic job. It was unbelievable. And the guys at Falk, everybody helped everybody," said Henry Carerros, a 58-year-old machinist who suffered a puncture wound to the forehead, a sprained neck and various cuts when the ceiling of a Falk building near the blast site caved in on him.

The response began even before the explosion, when an ominous call reached the cell phone of Jason Prei, an environmental and safety engineer for Rexnord Corp., which owns Falk Corp. There was a gas smell outside a building known as the annex.

It was 7:50 a.m., and Prei was in a safety meeting. He began walking from his meeting at Falk's general office building to the annex. When he entered the building, some workers already were getting out.

"I was going to put (caution) tape across doors to keep people out and roadways to keep trucks and machinery away from the building," he said.

He never did get the tape. The explosion ripped through the building before he had a chance.

"I was knocked down and thrown against a wall," Prei said. A fence fell on him. He suffered cuts, bruises and hearing loss in both ears.

At the scene

In the chaotic moments right after the explosion, the first help came from some of Falk's 70 emergency responders who cover the three shifts and are trained in CPR, first aid and the use of automatic external defibrillators.

As firefighters were arriving, the company's emergency responders already were treating victims -- calming people, dressing superficial wounds and wrapping workers who were cold with blankets.

Police and fire dispatch records show that 911 wasn't called until after the explosion, a situation that in hindsight may have saved the lives of first responders. A call 10 minutes before the disaster could have put firefighters and officers in harm's way.

"Ten minutes earlier, and we may have had eight dead (firefighters)," said Lt. Brian O'Connor, the Fire Department's public information officer.

Instead, the first emergency workers provided swift help to the injured.

The first alarm was called in by Engine 28, whose firefighters were about six blocks away from the blast and could see the smoke. That early notice, and subsequent reports from the scene, swiftly alerted city agencies and hospitals to the work that lay ahead. Almost immediately, Kristin Schiestle, a charge nurse at Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa, got a call from its paramedic base, informing her that an explosion had occurred. The hospital went into disaster mode, preparing for the patients they would soon be seeing.

At Falk, Lt. Frank Alioto called in a second alarm and requested extra paramedics, while Lt. Mark Grade, a 16-year veteran, set up a triage area, separating those with minor injuries from those with severe injuries.

Meanwhile, other firefighters battled what was, in those early minutes, an intense blaze, said Battalion Chief Brian Glassel.

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