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Reserve First Responders Form Rescue Team in Iraq

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2005 – When Army Sgt. Joseph Taylor arrived on the scene of the Dec. 29 explosion in Baghdad, Iraq, chaos was the order of the day.

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Army Staff Sgt. Magnifico uses a K-12 saw to cut rebar out of a hole so fellow rescuers Staff Sgt. Zollinger and Sgt. Greg Renko could enter the hole to search a collapsed building for any trapped victims. Photo by Maj. Adam Roth, USA

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Insurgents had lured several Iraqi police to a home, then detonated powerful explosives. The homes of at least three families were destroyed, leaving nothing but piles of rubble. One house had "pancaked," a first-responder term to explain that the building's walls had collapsed and one floor had fallen on top of another like a stack of pancakes.

Despite the devastation, those families were fortunate Taylor was among the first U.S. servicemen on the scene. And several people are alive today because he was.

Taylor is second-in-command of a unique team of Army Reserve soldiers with civilian experience in "heavy rescue" -- saving people trapped in collapsed structures.

While other members of 91st Engineer Battalion, to which Taylor is attached, began securing a perimeter around the incident site, Taylor began assessing the wreckage, keeping a particular eye out for potential "voids," small open places where someone might have survived the building's collapse.

"I went directly over to the pile to try to figure out exactly what was going on, to try and figure out some numbers and get a good assessment of what was happening," Taylor said in a telephone interview with American Forces Press Service.

He alerted his battalion commander it would be best to call the as-yet-untested "Rescue 1" team, formed from members of the 458th Combat Engineer Battalion in the unit's predeployment phase at the behest of the 1st Cavalry Division, which is responsible for security operations in and around Baghdad.

Then Taylor got to work on the serious business of saving innocent lives. Over the next three hours -- while the rest of the team of part-time rescuers was notified, assembled and deployed -- Taylor pulled four people out of "the pile" alive.

When two of the team's three rescue companies arrived, they pulled out another -- a 22-year-old woman. Taylor and the rest of the team also recovered several bodies from the rubble. In all, 29 people, many of them Iraqi policemen, died in the attack.

The Rescue 1 team came about after many hours of planning meetings at Fort McCoy, Wis., as the 458th, an Army Reserve unit from Johnstown, Pa., was preparing for its yearlong deployment to Iraq. A group of six individuals with extensive civilian experience in firefighting, emergency medicine and hazardous-materials handling planned the 90-member team, set training tasks, cobbled together equipment from several different sources, and manned the new organization with volunteers.

Many team members had little or no rescue experience before this mission. They trained extensively at Fort McCoy, then some more as the unit was processing through Camp Victory South, in Kuwait. Since they arrived in Iraq in February 2003, the team members have trained together at least once a month, explained Army Sgt. Greg Renko, a medic with the 458th and one of the team's original six "officers."

The team uses "firematic" terms, and many of the so-called officers here are actually Army enlisted men. What's important in this context is not their military ranks, but their rescue expertise gained through civilian experience. The team's commander is Army Maj. Adam Roth, battalion executive officer of the 458th. Taylor, also a medic with his unit, is the team's deputy commander.

Taylor said seeing the team save lives is an amazing experience for the six original officers. "It's almost like it's your own child," he said. "It's something you've created, you've helped it grow. And it's now mature enough to go out there and be able to do amazing things."

In Iraq, the team acts much like a volunteer fire department. Members each have their normal jobs, not necessarily together. Members' day-to-day duties include sweeping routes for roadside bombs, patrolling areas of Baghdad, and construction jobs. But when they're notified of an emergency, they meet up and head out as a team.

"At any point they can give us a call, and they bring us all back in, just like a civilian volunteer fire department," said Renko, who in his civilian life is a paramedic firefighter in Monroeville, Pa.

The explosion on the 29th was the first time they actually deployed to an incident, Renko said. But they'd had plenty of "false alarms" before then. "We've been called up numerous times where we'd have the vehicles ready to go," he said. "We'd be staged, and we'd get 'called down.' They didn't need us, or there'd be nobody entrapped."

Renko and Taylor said they received a grateful response from the Iraqi police, firefighters and civilians who were at the scene of the major explosion last month. "The civilians were outstandingly happy we were there. They came up hugging us, shaking our hands," Renko said. "The interpreter they had there, he kept telling us they were saying how happy they were that we were showing up to help them."

He said the Iraqis knew there were no U.S. casualties at the scene and were touched that these soldiers were working so hard to save the lives of Iraqi civilians.

Being part of a rescue team in Iraq has unique challenges. Especially poignant is that the members are deployed far from their usual support networks and stress relievers. In the civilian world, veteran first responders devise ways to help them deal with the horror of seeing people injured and killed. In the aftermath of the recent explosion, the team pulled many bodies from the wrecked buildings, including several children.

Taylor explained that when he returns from an incident in his civilian job as a paramedic firefighter in Norfolk, Va., the first thing he does is to call his wife, Jennifer, and to talk to his young sons. Playing with "the boys" allows him to get past the strain of his job. In Iraq, that outlet is not available to him.

Added to the routine strain of a deployment and stressful missions, is that Jennifer has given birth to a third son since Taylor has been in Iraq. She is now caring for 9-month-old Noah, and Adam, 4, and Zachary, 3, at home by herself until Taylor's unit redeploys in the next month or so. And many other men in the unit are in similar situations.

"A lot of these rescuers, we've had children on this deployment. We weren't there for that. A lot of us don't know those children. I don't know my youngest," Taylor said. "It just makes it that much harder."

To help them cope, chaplains are available to the rescuers, and the more experienced members make themselves readily available to the others -- just to talk or to refer them to other help, if that's what's needed.

And the soldiers "do what soldiers do best -- you rely on each other," Taylor said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageIraqis and U.S. soldiers work to rescue people from the rubble left after a Dec. 29 attack that leveled several houses in Baghdad, Iraq. "We had a lot of help from Iraqi civilians," said Army Sgt. Greg Renko, a member of a team of U.S. rescuers who responded to the attack site and saved five people buried in the collapsed houses. "They worked very well with us. They were very thankful for us helping them with the rescue," he said. Photo by Maj. Adam Roth, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. Greg Renko works to get farther inside of a hole in the rubble pile of a collapsed building Dec. 29. This photo was taken shortly after Renko saved a trapped woman from the collapsed structure. Photo by Maj. Adam Roth, USA  
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