An accident waiting to happen

One of Minnesota's top cops looks back at the tragic I-35W Mississippi River Bridge Collapse


  1.      Expect the unexpected.

         "That's the Golden Rule," Stanek says. "No one envisioned a bridge collapse in Minnesota on a hot August night." Nor did anyone foresee that a group of terrorists would fly planes into the Pentagon, World Trade Center, and a field in Pennsylvania. Anticipate the unthinkable.

  2.      It's all about working relationships.

         "We know everybody on a first-name basis," he says of the emergency responder and law enforcement community in his area. Training with other agencies and working with them on cases and operations not only prepares a department for the worst-case scenario, but it also fosters camaraderie, trust and friendship. Knowing one another and what to expect pays off when teamwork is critical.

  3.      First things first.

         "I would categorize the first 30 minutes as absolutely critical," says Stanek. While the sheriff says it's fortunate that early decisions made at the scene were good ones, he also admits that wasn't by design. His advice: don't waste time over-analyzing what you've got. Bring the equipment you're going to need and do it fast. Think about your communications from the beginning. Know what you have available to you. Stanek had only been sheriff for eight months when the bridge collapse took place, so his lessons took place under fire.

  4.      Organize around a purpose.

         "It didn't matter whether we were cops, National Guard or state police," Stanek says. "We were one team in one fight." Rescuers developed a common mission: uniting victims with loved ones. Other considerations were also put into play, but that was the main vision that Stanek says everyone on the scene, not simply the sheriff's department, rallied around. It was unifying and it gave responders a sense of direction and kept them focused.

  5.      Set managed expectations.

         "We held briefings and met with families," he says. "It was always about the victims." Victims' families can really feel the brunt of the media and often wax impatient when they perceive law enforcement and other agencies are not moving fast or being thorough. Stanek says responders gave up vacations, worked overtime without complaint and endured hardships to keep the operation running. But the real focus was keeping the families in the loop — and at the same time managing the media in such a way as to give them what they needed without compromising the families' and victims' privacy. They did that by giving reporters a tented staging area, access to portable toilets, water and even food.

  6.      You're the leader.

         "There is no one else — take responsibility for your own agency," says Stanek. You must understand where you fit into the whole and what your responsibilities are. Keep your people safe. In circumstances such as these you must often make ethical and moral decisions, so be prepared, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Stanek says his agency's divers found the going difficult because they weren't used to working under the types of conditions they found. When he had a few moments with President George W. Bush, who flew in to talk to officials at the disaster, Stanek asked for Navy divers because they are trained to work under similar circumstances.

         "I asked at 10:30 a.m. and by 2 p.m. I'd already received phone calls from the secretaries of the Navy and Transportation. By 4 a.m. the next day, U.S. Navy divers were in the water," he says.

  7.      Surround yourself with great people.

         "I had the right people in the right place at the right time," says Stanek. He credits the experienced officers already in the agency as well as those he brought with him for doing a professional job under very challenging circumstances. Knowing the talent and capabilities of his personnel made a difficult time, if not easier, at least more professional.

  8.      Develop and communicate strong beliefs.

         "It was important for us to maintain dignity for the people who lost their lives and their families," says Stanek. Whenever a body was recovered, workers paused for a moment of silence. All other activity stopped and personnel shielded the scene from prying eyes and the media with tarps and other devices. They wanted to make certain the event was not turned into a photo opportunity.

  9.      Stand up for your mission.

         "A lot of people [involved in a disaster] have competing interests," Stanek acknowledges. He recommends that law enforcement executives not allow them to deflect focus away from the mission, whether it's a safe evacuation, ongoing search and rescue, or containment of a scene.

  10.      The buck stops here.

         "There will be litigation, so prepare for it," says the sheriff. Stanek drew on his background in public safety and homeland security to document literally everything that took place on the scene. Agency photographers recorded the scene, officers took notes, videotape was made, reports gathered, even e-mail was copied. Stanek had the material brought together and put into "literally dozens" of three-ring binders, ready for requests from attorneys, investigators, victims' families, the media and other interested parties.

  11.      Watch what you say.

         Stanek says one public official went on the air and told reporters that 68 people had died. This was when the body count stood at six to eight. Never forget that some public officials consider a disaster as the perfect moment for a little public relations. Don't fall into that trap.

In the end

     When the last body was recovered, the cars removed from the water, and the crime-scene tape taken down, Stanek was left to reflect on the operation. He says he saw real value in the NIMS training his officers had received and believes the take-away is that it really works.

     Dozens of agencies offered their services — small-town police departments, federal agents, fire departments, emergency rescue workers and more — and they were all put to work. Says Stanek, "There were federal agencies trying to figure out what their roles were, but at the end of the day they are all cops with guns."

     And, for the most part, everyone did what was asked of them without complaint and without regard to the importance of the task. If perimeter control was needed, that's what they did. There were no stars among the emergency personnel who worked the scene, but there was a common goal: to do the right thing by the victims. And that, ultimately, is what they did.

     A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations. She may be reached at carolemoore@ec.rr.com.

View From the Water

     Hennepin County Sheriff's chief diver talks about the challenges of underwater disaster recovery

     In 1997, Inspector Jeff Storms, who heads the Hennepin County Sheriff's Enforcement Services Bureau, started diving with the department's underwater recovery team. Although he supervises the unit and doesn't actively dive as much as before, Storms says he and his team learned a lot about themselves, their profession and the community when the I-35W Bridge collapsed.

     The team, which, like the rest of the department, has extensive NIMS training, had several goals in addition to their recovery duties. Paramount among them was to do everything possible to protect the rescuers. Their secondary goal echoes Sheriff Rich Stanek's departmental objectives.

     "[To preserve] the dignity of those underneath the bridge," Storms says. "For the last 11 years, I have dealt with 75 to 100 families in connection with drownings, and the one thing we do is make sure family members know what is happening."

     Storms' team is accustomed to recovering remains and dealing with distraught families, but when team members arrived on the scene of the bridge collapse, they knew that not only would be it an extended operation, it would provide a challenge unlike any they'd ever before encountered.

     "It was surreal," Storms admits, as he looks back on his initial reaction to the first call. Approaching the scene by watercraft, Storms said he came in from down river.

     "Before I even got there I could smell the gasoline in the water," he says. He could also smell the smoke from fires, but Storms says the NIMS training kicked in quickly. "Everybody was responding to the call for assistance, everybody understood the unified command [concept]," he says. "It was very positive and … followed, right down to the letter."

     Although the situation was difficult, there were some breaks. Because there had been something of a drought that summer, the current was not as strong as it had been a few months earlier. One negative was that the pieces of debris were so massive and volatile and they shifted constantly, posing a danger to the rescue divers.

     "The biggest thing we work toward was [weighing] risk versus benefit," Storms explains. "Prior to putting someone in extreme risk, we have to understand the benefit. An hour after the event we understood that anyone underwater was deceased. There was one car south of 35W, but we didn't have a diver go in because of gas and oil on the water. There was no benefit."

     Area dive teams (Hennepin County alone has three rivers and 104 named lakes) converged on the scene and did some preliminary rescue work, but when it became obvious that the mission had shifted from rescue to recovery, the agency requested assistance from Navy SEALS, who are trained to work in murky water in highly hazardous conditions.

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