How Order Prevails in Bomb Chaos


AS the dust-powdered army of rescuers pokes through the debris of this nation's worst bombing attack, Oklahomans are looking back at the week-old tragedy and finding a point of civic pride.

By all accounts, the Herculean search, rescue, and security effort coordinated by Oklahoma authorities has gone remarkably well. So well, in fact, that disaster experts here have now dubbed it ''The Oklahoma Standard'' -- the yardstick by which future civic disaster drills will be measured.

''It has been extraordinary,'' says James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Details of how officials mounted the effort are just beginning to emerge as rescue workers continue their grim task of searching for survivors from the tragedy that, at last count, had claimed more than 100 lives.

Within five minutes of the bombing, Major Garold Spencer, commander of the Oklahoma City Police Department's Emergency Response Team (ERT) paged the 64 officers in this special cell.

As they called in, Major Spencer told them not to report to the bomb site, but to a location about two miles away. Spencer explains that the removed location allowed the team to make clear-headed decisions and forge a plan without being distracted by the chaos at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Authorities move quickly

Within half an hour, the ERT members had deployed on the scene. Working with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, the ERT had begun to establish a security perimeter. Within one hour and 15 minutes, Spencer says, the ERT had completely sealed off a 10-block area, keeping roads clear for emergency vehicles and keeping many distraught citizens in safe ranges. ''I have no doubt,'' he says, ''that the secure perimeter helped save lives.''

At the same time, specially trained ERT members fired up the mobile command unit and drove it to the parking lot of the Southwestern Bell Building, which remains the official command post for the rescue effort. Southwestern Bell ran hundreds of phone cables and passed out more than 100 free cellular phones to rescuers.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R) hurried from his capitol office across the street to the basement bunker used by the Oklahoma emergency management team. He summoned the National Guard and sent word to the White House, asking President Clinton to declare the city a disaster area.

When Mr. Clinton gave the nod, FEMA authorized disaster teams from their regional office in Denton, Texas, to rush to the scene. They also requested aid from teams that had dealt with disasters in the past: Kansas City rescuers who helped in the 1981 hotel skyway collapse; Dade County, Fla., workers who helped dig out from Hurricaine Andrew; and an elite urban-rescue team from Sacramento, Calif.

By noon, 230 Army and Air National Guard members had left their day jobs, donned fatigues, and headed for the drive to Oklahoma City. Roman Bas, a veteran search and rescue team member from Dade County, says that by the time his unit arrived late Wednesday afternoon, he was ''astonished'' at the security around the site, and the extent to which the command post was up and running. ''It was a textbook response,'' he says.

Success in the details

While Oklahoma City, like most towns, has had a longstanding disaster plan, police here have bolstered it in the last two years by creating the ERT, which meets one day a month to hone disaster efforts. But as important as the ERT response was, Spencer says the success of the effort lie in the details.

As part of their disaster planning, the ERT had collected a vast list of suppliers who could provide emergency equipment. Once bunkered in the command unit, members began ordering cranes, bulldozers, electrical cables, plywood, and plate glass.

Officers also contacted charities. Within the hour, the Red Cross and Oklahoma City's Save the Children chapter arrived on site. Radio stations beamed messages about supplies needed. Drop-off sites were set up. Soon, gloves, raincoats, sunscreen, wheelbarrows, and steel-toed boots poured in.

The command post is a hub of activity. It is lined with tables of supplies. Golf carts and small trucks shuttle workers back and forth to the bomb site. Nurses hover over first aid kits, chaplains stand ready to comfort rescuers, and massages are available for weary workers upstairs. Everywhere, banners from schoolchildren and church groups offer soothing words.

''We figured it would be a tornado or a civic disturbance that put our plans to the test,'' says ERT's Spencer.

''We never imagined it would be something like this.''

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