Amid Chaos, Rescuers Worked with Precision

Drills helped prepare agencies, hospitals for explosion at plant

"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.