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Canine Trauma

CARDA: Nevada TNT Explosion Search

By Shirley Hammond

On January 7, 1998 at 7:55 a.m. two explosions destroyed the SierraChemical Company manufacturing plant in Nevada. Six workers were injured andfour were missing.

This incident started as a request for USAR dogs with cadaver experience,specifically requesting N. CA teams that had responded to the OklahomaExplosion .The call came from the Nevada office of emergency services to CAOES. At first it was not known if survivors were possible and having dogsthat could detect both were thought to be the best resource. As moreinformation and data developed it became apparent that there was verylittle to no chance that the four missing could have survived the blast.The site was considered unsafe for the first 2 days, some areas were stillburning and small explosions were observed.

This was a Washoe County search whose principal canine search teams are WOOFhandlers. The WOOF handlers who first responded recognized that this searchneeded more experienced teams.

On Thursday several of the handlers wee invited to attend the morningbriefing and planning session of the Unified Command. They were shown beforeand after photos of the site and some floor plans of the buildings.. WashoeSAR Coordinator, Sgt. Emmons requested the handlers go back to his officefor a more detailed planning session. It was at this meeting, after seeingthe actual USAR search required and the amount of "Fine Cadaver Search" thatwould be needed to cover the area and achieve a 80% POD. The request was forexperienced handlers with dogs that had burned flesh/bone experience, dogsthat could work in quiet controlled manner under tight circumstances. Theteams were requested through Nevada Emergency Management Office to CA OES.

This incident in many ways was like Oklahoma in that it was considered acrime scene. There were many official agencies involved. The incident wasmanaged under a Unified Command, as provided by ICS, with ATF taking thelead role. Some of the agencies involved were ATF Investigators, ATF BombTech, Forensic Tech. (local, state and Federal), various Crime Labpersonnel, Environmental Agencies, Public Health, Hazardous Materials, FireDepartment, Army and Washoe County Sheriffs Office. The SO had twoveterinarians on call, one on site most of the time.

Safety was the number one concern for handlers and dogs. Hazmat training andprocedures were very important. Having a variety of equipment and thecorrect equipment was essential, including: helmet with chin strap, steelshank & steel toe boots, gloves and a variety of clothing. They didreluctantly relax their boot requirement and let us search in our hikingboots. The first day of the search handlers were advised not to take orwear anything into the search area that they were not prepared to part withinto the garbage. We sere not allowed to have radios, cameras with flash,pagers, or metal probes. At all times we were to have a bomb technician withus.

Each day we searched (except for the last day) in Tyvek suits, protectivecoverings over our boots, and doubled gloved. Each day when we arrived wehad to sign in at 3 different check points, again when we searched theexplosion site and when we left the site. Everything we did was observed.We were required to make a written report at the end of each search day.

Stress was another big concern. As handlers we had stress from thesituation, not knowing all the factors, from demands put on us, unknowndanger, putting our dogs in danger, and a lot of hurry up and wait to findout the conditions and safety problems.

Our dogs were under great stress, most of the time we searched very smallareas, very close to each other. It was necessary to keep very close trackof the dogs to make sure they did not walk on or smell some chemicals. Wewere constantly calling them back because they would start to follow theirnose and cross into another search area or into a hazardous area. The dogssearched around and in between lots of other people working the site. Wemight have a half dozen people standing in our search area, each doing theirown job, as well as heavy equipment working in the area.

Their day began very early as we had to be at the first check point at 6:30AM. Then we would be escorted to the next check point in the canyon. Thenwe went to a daily briefing, got dressed in our white suits and were readyto begin searching at 8 a.m. to noon, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. when we returnedto the command post the dogs had to go through the decon process. We tookthe dogs to one of the firemen who would wash our dogs and then take theclean dog from us to a "Clean area" where the dogs had to wait on a down forthe handler to go through taking off the Tyveck suits and protective gear(all the dirty stuff) and enter the clean area where we could pick up ourdogs.

The environmental teams were very concerned and checked out the area fortraces of hazardous material. There was an unfounded concern that SierraChemical Co. may have stored/stockpiled other hazardous chemicals in thisarea that were not used in the manufacturing of the explosive devices. Notraces of such chemicals were found.

Sierra Chemical Company had several different manufacturing operations in Washoe County. The plant manufacturing the TNT type explosives was located East of Sparks and North of Hwy. 80 in Mustang Canyon, not far from the famed house of ill repute, "Mustang Ranch".

Our efforts were rewarded by our dogs finding many small fragments ofbone/tissue. The fragments were so tiny in the ash and debris that they wereonly able to be detected by the dogs. The terminology used to describe thefinds was smaller than a cigarette package or smaller than a fifty centpiece. The Sheriff and the Forensic Team advised the handlers that theamount of finds by the dogs was a great aid to their investigation. Theynever expected to recover so much material.

On Saturday the Sheriff's Office had a conference with the family membersand told them the dogs had recovered enough small fragments to do the DNAtesting, so positive identification could be made.

Each day we would see the many faces of the family members who waited to getnews of their loved ones. It was a very sad situation, but as dog handlerswe felt we had helped in a small way to bring closure to the families andfriends.

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