NEW YORK — It’s hell on Earth.
Rescuers work around the clock in a desperate search for survivors among the fallen Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Families of the victims wander around the perimeter to spread the word about their loved ones. At ground zero, lifeless bodies keep coming out of the rubble.
The American flag flies at half-mast at GCNP headquarters.
"It’s so hard to grasp, all the emotion that’s here," said Dan Oltrogge, Grand Canyon National Park fire management officer who is in New York serving as an incident commander trainee for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team. "You talk to somebody local and their son-in-law lost a best friend ... or you see a state trooper off to the side who is crying his eyes out because he lost a best friend. That level of emotion is real somber."
Oltrogge is one of two Grand Canyon National Park representatives on the multi-agency incident management team serving under the jurisdiction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Donna Nemeth, who is fire information officer on the South Rim, is serving as an incident information officer. Kaibab National Forest also has two employees on the team — Cathie Schmidlin, who is also an incident information officer, and George Sheppard, who is a division-group supervisor.
"Our team is responsible for supporting the search-and-rescue operation," Nemeth said via telephone from New York. "We have established a mobilization center, which serves as a central location for ordering, receiving and distributing incident-related equipment and supplies."
In a matter of hours after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the Southwest Area Incident Management Team was swinging into action. On the afternoon of Sept. 11, the team traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., and then arrived via military aircraft on the morning of Sept. 12.
"We got in here Wednesday morning, the day after, and always when you come to an incident like this ... it’s because it’s real big," Oltrogge said. "Obviously, this is unprecedented."
Besides the GCNP and Kaibab National Forest presence, the team also includes 11 employees from Coconino National Forest. Joining Arizona’s multi-agency effort are team members from New Mexico, western Texas and Montana.
Oltrogge, whose assignment on site could be called deputy incident commander, said Saturday morning that things were coming along.
"From what we came into Wednesday morning to where we are now, definite progress is being made fixing a lot of the problems for the FEMA organization here," Oltrogge said. "This is so big, with lots of moving parts and so many involved in this thing. We’re just one organization trying to come together with these other folks to support the work that’s going on here."
Nemeth said she’s not sure how long they will be there, but assignments generally run for 14 days.
"We’re generally used to wildland fires," Nemeth said about the team’s work. "But what we do is very specific and can be applied to this situation."
The team’s mobilization center is part of the incident command post set up at Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, approximately three miles from the World Trade Center site. The facility is located in an adjacent warehouse.
Nemeth said the team is off-loading supplies ranging from "chapstick to heavy equipment."
For Oltrogge and undoubtedly the others, the tragedy has presented new challenges.
"I’ve never seen anything like this before," said Oltrogge, whose been with such teams since 1994. "We’re beginning to get around the power curve, getting in front of things."
Nemeth said the City of New York is solely responsible for disseminating information about the search and rescue operation.
For the latest news, visit their Web site at www.nyc.gov and scroll to "Office of Emergency Management."