Rescue team says Oklahoma City bombing prepared them for New York

Monday, September 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A California rescue crew that helped pull more than 90 bodies from the Murrah federal building six years ago said the experience prepared them for their work in New York City.

About 60 members of the Urban Search and Rescue Team of Menlo Park, Calif., plan to help sort out the rubble of the World Trade Center towers.

``Oklahoma City allowed us to become more realistic and more tempered, in one respect, of what we're going to deal with,'' said Harold Schapelhoman, leader of Menlo Park's task force.

``Thank goodness for Oklahoma City, or we wouldn't know what would impact us.''

The 200-member team, one of 28 specialized units funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, responds to disasters with rescue, medical, engineering and other specially trained personnel.

In Oklahoma City, the team expected to find survivors during a 10-day search. But they found none.

They expected to spend money to feed and support themselves while here. Instead, Oklahomans gave so much, the rescuers felt guilty for not being able to bring their loved ones back.

``We were a rescue team who rescued no one, and that's a hard pill to swallow. We all felt a tremendous obligation to Oklahoma City because of the way we were treated,'' Schapelhoman said. ``And we were dreaming in a lot of respects.''

Seventy bodies had been pulled from the rubble when the team arrived four days after the April 19, 1995, bombing. When they left, 163 bodies had been recovered.

The Menlo Park rescuers were so devoted to the job that a ``near fistfight'' broke out on the rubble the day the team had to leave, Schapelhoman said. The rescuers insisted on removing a body they had found that day.

``The guys would not disengage, they would not stop trying to get the body out,'' he said. ``We had to go up and almost pull them off the pile because they were not allowed to get that person out.''

One team member asked Oklahoma City fire Chaplain Ted Wilson to preside over his marriage ceremony.

Schapelhoman said the team's engineers believe the task they face in New York is 120 times what they dealt with in Oklahoma City.

He said he will tell the team not to expect survivors, to expect to get tired, to take advantage of crisis debriefings and allow fellow rescuers to talk about the sights, smells and sounds of the day.

``My concern is to bring people home alive with no injuries,'' Schapelhoman said. ``But there's one thing I know that I cannot adequately do for them, and that is tell them what the impact will be.

``In the end, each person has to live their own hell. And how they put that in perspective in the long run and how we deal with those ghosts will be something each of us individually will have to sort out.''