Seeing disasters through consumer's eyes

After Train 188 derailed, rescue operations had to focus not only on saving survivors and searching for victims, but on comprehending the steps families would take to find loved ones, and managing the needs of first responders. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

After a major accident or disaster, rescue operations have always focused on the nuts and bolts - saving the survivors, searching for those who didn't make it, securing the evidence.

Now an added dimension - call it the consumer perspective - has expanded how disaster planners think. Philadelphia emergency management officials say it guided their response to the Amtrak derailment that killed eight and injured more than 200 a dozen days ago.

Passengers are going through "the most traumatic time of their lives," said Everett A. Gillison, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff and deputy mayor for public safety. "Seeing the world through their eyes really kind of forces us to always question: 'Are we providing what we really need to provide to them?' "

That includes understanding what frantic families are going through. "If you haven't heard from somebody, you kind of have to assume the worst," he said.

One result of that consumer focus: The city accounted for every one of the 243 passengers and crew on Train 188 in 36 hours.

"I think the city responded well," said Samantha Phillips, who arrived at the Office of Emergency Management when it had six employees in 2007, and now directs a staff of 30.

Theirs are skills they must constantly hone, especially with major events ahead, like the papal visit, expected to draw two million this fall. Phillips says planners will learn from the derailment, although the biggest lessons may be in the past.

On June 5, 2013, a building that was being demolished toppled onto a busy Salvation Army thrift shop in Center City, killing six people.

"Before the Market Street building collapse we didn't have a citywide mass fatality plan and we also didn't have a plan for how to support families," Phillips said in an interview Friday.

She has spent much of the time since then developing response plans, testing them in simulated disasters, and using them in the Amtrak crash.

"Everything we do has to be for the families and designed around the families," she said.

During a recent briefing for The Inquirer by five of the city's top emergency management officials, the "human side" of rescue operations came up again and again, reflecting a recent change of thinking in the field.

To better comprehend what families were experiencing on the night of the crash, for example, Phillips wished she'd had someone dial Amtrak's toll-free number to find out "exactly what they would hear when they called." (Answer: The usual recording about reservations and schedules, at least early on.)

Most Philadelphia-area residents had gotten off the northbound train just before it derailed; many remaining passengers live in Washington or New York. Cellphones were lost in the crash. Their families wouldn't know where to go to look for them, or whom to call.

To track everyone down, Phillips said, about 40 to 50 people - hospital workers, medical examiner staff, first responders, police detectives - worked off a manifest that Amtrak supplied within hours.

But where were they?

"People who did not go to hospitals just walked off the scene," Phillips said. So the city put out a broadcast on TV and radio asking any passengers to call a toll-free number and report in.

Traveling Amtrak employees don't need tickets and were not on the manifest. One woman had lent her monthly pass to her niece; she was among the last to be accounted for.

Detectives searched Facebook posts and Twitter messages. They asked police in other cities and towns to knock on doors to see if residents had gotten home.

In a pocket of one unidentified victim, detectives found a generic MetroCard. New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority was able to determine that the transit pass had been purchased with a credit card, which could be linked to a phone number.

"Every incident requires some sort of adaptation," Phillips said.

One realization to be written into updated disaster plans: "It's hard to get a Port-a-Potty vendor in the middle of the night." Even the city's procurement director, awakened at 3 a.m., could not get portable toilets for the hundreds of first responders delivered before sunrise.

In general, though, the plans that were triggered by the building collapse two years ago "paid off," said Chief Medical Examiner Sam Gulino. "It could not have gone smoother."

David Hayes, the former musical director of the Philadelphia Singers, who crawled out of the cafe car with cuts and bruises, described the response as "quite quick and certainly massive." He added: "I was amazed at how ordered it was."

Indeed, emergency managers said the plans were so precisely laid that they did not want outside help that they didn't seek.

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office sent out a news release and tweets announcing four high-ranking officials were on their way to Philadelphia for support, they were intercepted on arrival.

In counties surrounding Philadelphia, emergency preparedness officials knew better than to step in uninvited.

"I did not hear from one of them," Phillips said. "That is a success story. . . . They need to be ready for the moment I call them."

She never needed to.


dsapatkin@phillynews.com

215-854-2617 @DonSapatkin