The Japanese delegation seems mesmerized by the sweating firefighters hanging from ropes in front of a building, as they saw holes into the walls. It's noon in College Station, Texas. The sun is directly overhead, and the air is hot, humid and still.
A US military Black Hawk helicopter is circling in the sky above the Japanese group. Plumes of smoke rise into the air in the distance, past collapsed houses, piles of rubble and the remains of a derailed Amtrak train. The smoke is coming from buildings and wrecked planes filled with straw.
"Fantastic," says one of the Japanese, pointing to a pile of cement, "perfectly executed, down to the last detail." A perfect disaster. There is even an alligator that lives in a pond behind a collapsed parking garage filled with crushed cars.
The reptile is the only resident of "Disaster City," a bizarre ghost town the size of 30 football fields, where wrecks and ruins are carefully prepared and presented so that soldiers, firefighters and emergency responders from around the world can simulate every conceivable disaster scenario: earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, fires, gas explosions, attacks with chemical or biological weapons, and terrorist attacks.
As Real as Possible
More than 70,000 emergency workers come to Disaster City every year, from the United States, Canada and Latin America, as well as from Asia, Australia, Great Britain, Norway and Portugal. They receive training from instructors who have led rescue efforts during real-life disasters, like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti. Disaster City is also an open-air laboratory for the scientific community. Engineers from nearby Texas A&M University regularly use the site to test the instruments, sensors and robots they have developed.
Part of the concept of the ghost town is that the staged disasters should feel as real as possible, which explains the children's toys, bicycles, office chairs, odd pair of shoes and mutilated mannequins scattered among the wreckage and ruins of concrete, steel and wood.
The six Japanese visitors in their black pleated trousers and crisp white shirts seem out of place as they scribble in their notebooks. Japan's government Fire and Disaster Management Agency (FDMA) in Tokyo has sent them halfway around the world to tour the disaster research facility in rural Texas. Besides the university, to which Disaster City is attached, College Station consists mainly of cattle, horses, churches and streets named after former US President George Bush.
"As you know, we have a high earthquake risk in Japan," says Katsuhiro Miyakawa, the deputy director of the FDMA. "And here we can learn to prepare ourselves for emergencies from the best in the world."
Thanks to climate change, natural disasters are on the rise. And then there is the constant threat of terrorist attacks. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the southeastern United States in the summer of 2005, the US Department of Homeland Security commissioned a study to determine how well-prepared the country is for catastrophic events. The results were devastating: Almost three-quarters of all US states and 90 percent of the cities studied were classified as poorly prepared.
Does this mean that the modern world needs a place like Disaster City?
Dave Phillips, a fire department team leader from Lincolnshire, Great Britain, has just cut apart a block of concrete with a 50-kilogram (110-pound), earsplitting chainsaw that spits out dirty cooling water as it operates. He looks satisfied as he wipes the sweat and dirt out of his face and says: "The training here is as realistic as possible, but it is comforting to know that the ceiling isn't about to collapse on top of you."
'You Can't Compare Haiti to This'
Phillips, a powerfully built Englishman with a shaved head, is here for the second time. This time he is attending a course called "Advanced Structural Collapse 5." He wants to practice cutting his way through steel-reinforced concrete walls in collapsing buildings without "being sliced in two," as he calls it, by the force of a bursting steel rod.
The course consists of early morning lectures followed by 10 to 12 hours of hard work in the searing Texas heat. A "realistic exercise" is on the agenda for the fifth day: a catastrophic scenario that Phillips and the other course participants from Great Britain and Canada will have to master without instructions.
Phillips quickly gulps down a bottle of water. "Without the training here," he says, "we wouldn't have been able to perform the mission in Haiti in the same way." According to Phillips, it is helpful to have experienced complicated situations at least once, even if they are simulated, because it enables emergency responders to react more quickly in emergencies. "Although, of course, you can't compare Haiti to this," Phillips is quick to add.
The work in Port-au-Prince was his most difficult challenge to date, says the British fireman. "The hardest part of it was accepting that most of the victims were beyond help." And then there was the stench of the dead. "Our people were constantly getting sick from it."
On one occasion, Phillips and his team had worked their way into a collapsed supermarket. The rescue dogs hadn't given the team any signals, so that the firefighters did not expect to find any survivors. But the scene they encountered in the wreckage was far worse than they had feared. "There were about 50 dead bodies lying on top of each other in a group," says Phillips. "They had all fought to get out, but not one of them made it."
Is it even possible to train to deal with such horrors? Here in Disaster City, the participants clearly enjoy ripping apart concrete beams with chain saws. But will this really help them when they are confronted with the horror, chaos and suffering of a real disaster? Or is Disaster City just an expensive, ultra-American Disneyland of disaster?
The best person to answer that question is the man who invented Disaster City. George Kemble Bennett, 70, heads the engineering department at Texas A&M University, and he is a member of virtually every committee involved in questions of national security. He is the director of the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center and the founder of Texas Task Force 1, an elite rescue team. A photo hanging on the wall in his enormous office shows Bennett pointing the way for former President George W. Bush. In the thank you letter next to the photo, dated March 21, 2002, Bush writes: "Our nation will always be grateful to you and your team for your courageous efforts at Ground Zero."
Preparing for Terror Attacks
Bennett leans back in his blue-and-gold armchair, folds his hands together and thinks for a moment. Then he says: "It's possible that Disaster City might seem like a Disneyland to some people. The emergency responders come here and fight a fire, then they fight another fire, and then they break down a concrete wall. Their adrenaline levels rise, and that's completely OK. As long as they learn something in the process, it's not forbidden to have fun."
As far as floods, hurricanes, fires and the like are concerned, rescue teams are usually well prepared nowadays, says Bennett. "But when it comes to terrorism, to exploding buildings, massive pieces of concrete and steel wreckage and massive numbers of victims -- how do you prepare people for something like that?" he asks. "Our emergency responders are being asked to do more and more, and before Disaster City there was no place that offered the possibility of training them for that."
When Ken Knight, London's fire commissioner at the time, stepped in front of the TV cameras after the July 2005 bombings, he said that training in Disaster City had helped his people react correctly to the attack. Now Bennett's engineers are advising fire officials in England on the construction of a similar facility on the outskirts of London. Another version of Disaster City is currently being built in the desert emirate of Qatar. "They're more concerned there about accidents in the oil and gas industry than terrorist attacks," says Bennett.
With each major disaster, Disaster City develops a little further. For example, Bennett discovered the model for his collapsed parking garage with its crushed cars in Manhattan, half a block from Ground Zero. After Hurricane Katrina, the disaster experts built a mountain of wood debris, based on destroyed houses in New Orleans. It is more difficult for search-and-rescue dogs to find buried victims in wood debris than in concrete, Bennett explains, because the human odor spreads more extensively in wood. At Disaster City, dogs are now being trained with extras.
Meanwhile, scientists at Texas A&M University are testing new types of echo tracking systems in the alligator pond that they hope will make it easier to find bodies in the water. High-speed cameras are being installed throughout the entire facility so that future exercises can be coordinated and recorded at the command center and later analyzed.
The scientists also use every opportunity to transfer their experiments to real life. When the city archive building in Cologne collapsed last March, a Texas Task Force 1 team, together with robot expert Robin Murphy, traveled to Germany to examine the wreckage with two special robots.
Fireman Phillips and his colleagues are wearing heavy uniforms, helmets, respirators, protective goggles and earplugs. They are already soaked with perspiration before the "realistic exercise" has even begun. Jon Rigolo, the instructor, explains the scenario: a victim, in this case a doll named Mrs. McGillicuddy, has to be rescued from the third floor of a collapsed office building.
After drilling their way through several walls made of metal, concrete and wood, some of them already collapsed, the men have to stabilize the openings before they can reach the doll, which is trapped under a desk. The task requires tremendous effort. It's as hot as an oven inside the building, and when the chain saws and drills start to roar and chunks of concrete begin to break out of the first wall, it suddenly doesn't seem like a game anymore.
Rigolo claps his hands and shouts: "Two minute break. Make sure you hydrate, please!" The firemen pull the masks from their faces, gasping for air. "And could we shut off the oven, please?" an Englishman with a bright-red face asks. The instructor shakes his head and grins. "We're much too easy on you here, anyway," he says. "Real life is a whole lot tougher."