Recovering from tragedy – Potomac News Online

When Dan Bickham reported to work with one of the most elite search and rescue teams in the world the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the 35-year veteran of the Fairfax County Fire Department was looking forward to retirement.

Although one of the most challenging and emotionally harrowing missions of his career was to come in mere hours, Bickham was working that day with Rescue Squad 418, assigned to station 13 in Falls Church. He had just returned from the scene of a car accident when 418 received word of the first plane crash in New York.

Bickham, a Manassas resident, was one of the founders of Virginia Task Force One, an international search and rescue team that has responded to over 14 major disasters around the world since its founding in 1986. The team was formed out of a need for an urban search and rescue team after a building collapse at Bailey’s Crossroads.

Over time, the team responded to disasters farther and farther from its home station, and now travels all over the world with elite and highly trained rescue personnel.

The team has been to Russia for an earthquake that killed 60,000 people and was used in Turkey, Taiwan and the Philippines, also for earthquakes. They also assisted at the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Bickham and the other firemen were watching TV footage of the first World Trade Center, talking about firefighting techniques and what the firemen there were experiencing.

“When we saw the first tower come down, we all just immediately looked at it, and it was unbelievable,” Bickham said. “Being firefighters, we knew they were all in the stairwells, lugging all that equipment. We already determined this would be a large loss of life. We knew there would be thousands and thousands of people dead.”

Then they saw the second plane hit.

“At that point I knew that our nation, the United States of America, was under attack,” Bickham said. “I notified [command] that we were going to return to Fire Station 18, the headquarters of the team, and start preparing for an anticipated response to New York.”

Station 18 is where VATF-1 houses its equipment.

The team is assigned to disasters by and is under contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Office of Foreign Disaster and Assistance.

“[FEMA] officially told us we would be responding [to New York],” Bickham said. “We were transferred from New York City to the Pentagon by FEMA.”

Bickham called his wife and told her to get their kids out of school, go home and stay there until he told them otherwise.

“In the training that we’ve had in the past concerning weapons of mass destruction, we’ve often been trained in some of the incidents where the potential targets would be civilian targets,” Bickham said.

“Schools, transportation, subways, things like that. I got myself together and said I don’t want them going anywhere. I wouldn’t be in contact with them, and I didn’t want them to go any places that I had known from past training could be potential targets,” he said.

The team then made its way to the Pentagon and searched the rubble while the fire was still being put out.

“My job [at the Pentagon] was to direct the rescue operations that we were given initially by the Arlington command and the FEMA Incident Support Team,” Bickham said.

The heat and smoke were tremendous at the site. As an operations chief, Bickham was required to see that his team had the proper equipment, including breathing apparatus to combat the heavy smoke conditions.

“The two reconnaissance teams were ordered in to search the portion of the structure that hadn’t collapsed, and gain access to the parts that had,” Bickham said. “Ed Teal [another rescuer] told me, ‘You have to come out and see this.’ He took me into some of the areas we were trying to gain access to.”

According to Bickham, the plane was not at all visible, with the exception of the front landing gear buried in the fourth ring of rubble and some sheets of metal from the 757’s fuselage outside.

“If you didn’t know what happened, you would have no idea it was an airplane,” Bickham said.

Once the operation was officially changed from a rescue to a recovery, the team began laying six-by-six-foot timbers and boxed them to support the remaining columns. That process is called “cribbing,” according to Bickham. Debris must be cleaned out before that can take place. This included victim recovery.

VATF-1 located both “black boxes” from the flight. Black boxes are the boxes that record information about a flight on a continuous loop so that in the event of a crash, the last half-hour of a flight’s data and cockpit voice recordings are available to investigators.

The team has increased its training related to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction so that they will be better prepared in the event of another attack.

Bickham said the team began terrorism training about eight years ago.

Bickham retired in April after 35 years of rescue work. The Sept. 11 tragedies did not influence his leaving, he wrote in a response to requests by the Potomac News and the Manassas Journal Messenger for people to write in their remembrances of that day.

” ‘Amazing Grace’ played on the bagpipes has a different affect on me now; tears are automatic and uncontrollable,” he wrote.

He stresses the importance of always letting your family and friends know you love them. “Your life can change in a second, as fast as it takes to blink your eye. . .,” he wrote.

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