Amid Chaos, Rescuers Worked with Precision

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.

"I've never been in a war and I've never seen a bombing, but this was the closet thing to a bombing that I've ever seen," Glassel said.

By now, "a wave of humanity" was trudging from the wreckage to a fleet of Fire Department and private ambulances staged outside the plant. At its peak, the exodus was six to eight people wide and extended more than 200 yards, said fire Lt. Carter Hunnicutt, a supervisor in the bureau of special operations.

"We had a huge number of people," Hunnicutt said. "I saw 300 to 400 people move past me. They were all shook up. It was a cold Wisconsin morning with fire and smoke in the background. There were people hanging on to each other."

Paramedics waited at the west gate of the plant.

"We corralled them all and got to them around the gate area," said special operations Battalion Chief Pepie Du De Voire. "They kind of migrated to us."

Unknown to Falk workers and many of the emergency medical personnel, firefighters had another urgent concern: a two-story liquid oxygen tank in a different part of the building. Firefighters kept water on it to make sure it did not overheat and explode, Glassel said.

"We just kept pounding water on it," he said, explaining that if the tank had exploded, "that would have been bigger than the propane explosion."

Paramedics ultimately examined injured workers at three locations: Miller Park, the west end of the Falk plant and the Palermo's Pizza production facility at 3301 W. Canal St.

More than 40 were then sent on to area hospitals. Private ambulances transported all but one of the injured. That one had more serious injuries and was taken by a Fire Department ambulance.

Fire officials said the emergency medical treatment operation went smoothly, in part, because they regularly train for such events, coordinating activities between police, the Fire Department and private ambulance firms.

At the crisis center

Training was key, too, at City Hall, where Daniel Alexander, homeland security director for Milwaukee, sat reading and catching up on e-mails when the Fire Department called just two minutes after the explosion. Within minutes, Alexander was on the phone with the mayor, police chief and fire chief, assessing the situation as dispatches relayed news of the unfolding disaster.

Government responders were aided by an emergency drill nine months earlier that had envisioned a scenario similar to the one they now faced: an explosion at a private company.

By 8:26 a.m. Wednesday, less than 20 minutes after the Falk blast, Mayor Tom Barrett had called for a citywide emergency response. All agency directors were immediately informed of the explosion and told that the city had set up the Emergency Operations Center, a crisis room at the Police District 3 building.

At about 8:30 a.m., Alexander was in his car and on his way to the District 3 building on N. 49th St.

"All we really needed to do to get the room ready was basically turn on the lights," he said.

Soon, the room filled with city, county and state agency directors and representatives; the mayor; and officials from the FBI, We Energies, the American Red Cross and Rexnord, all working phones and computers. Every hour, the mayor would stop for a briefing that lasted about 15 minutes, to make sure everyone was up to speed.

"Luckily, we had rehearsed a situation very similar to this one in March," said Alexander, referring to an emergency response drill that took place March 2, in which city officials responded to a mock explosion at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.

The drill allowed them to think about how they would deal with an incident at a private company and an explosion in an urban area that could spread particulates into the air and shake the structural integrity of buildings, roads and bridges.

At the hospitals

Wisconsin Heart Hospital in Wauwatosa had gone through a drill of its own just the day before the blast, though it was only to prepare for a snowstorm in which it lost power. Rapidly, the hospital was plunged into an emergency of a different kind.

At 8:15 a.m., Steven Motarjeme, the medical director, stepped out from a meeting and learned of the explosion.

The hospital, which has only six regular beds and two additional ones for observation, saw four patients from Falk.

Among them were workers requiring a spleen removal, plastic surgery and treatment of minor cuts and bruises. As they were treating the patients, two heart patients unrelated to the Falk disaster showed up with chest pains.

"We were pushed to the max for our system," Motarjeme said. "But you plan for these things, and the reality is, it worked better today than we'd expected."

At Columbia St. Mary's, Kathy Herson, an emergency physician, had only a month ago read an article on blast injuries in a medical journal. On Wednesday, she was facing the real thing, and the treatment protocol was fresh in her mind.

"Obviously, this was a catastrophe," she said. "We had no idea how many people we'd get."

She learned of the Falk explosion from a co-worker at 8:30 a.m., and in a half-hour, the patients were arriving. The hospital had time to prepare the burn unit by moving six patients who were already there. As it turned out, the Falk patients all had minor injuries caused by debris. No burns.

She was glad to have patients.

"My biggest fear when you see this on TV and you get no victims is that they're all dead," she said.

At Froedtert, staff members immediately conducted a bed count and determined that the hospital could take eight of the most critically injured Falk patients and 24 in serious or stable condition. The hospital called in one physician, Stephen W. Hargarten, an emergency physician specializing in injuries.

After readying the hospital, the staff waited 30 minutes for the first patient to arrive. In the end, it treated nine patients for injuries including head lacerations, fractures and chest contusions. A 10th patient was transferred to the hospital later in the evening.

"We were prepared for many more patients, but in the end, it wasn't any more busy than on a typical day," said Schiestle, the charge nurse. "The problem is, you never know this until after it's over."

Lynn Schubert, safety manager for Aurora Health Care's Metro Region, was at the hospital's Cudahy location when her pager went off.

"I jumped into the car and headed back to St. Luke's Medical Center (in Milwaukee)," she said.

She got caught waiting for a train to cross, and when she arrived, the staff already had kicked into emergency mode.

There was a command center set up. Bed counts had been determined.

At 8:50 a.m., the first patient arrived by car. Not a Falk worker, but someone hit by flying glass.

"We do these drills all the time," Schubert said. "But you could tell that this was the real thing."

John Fauber, Susanne Rust and John Diedrich of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Copyright (c) 2006, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.