March 28, 2009: 4 p.m.
Down here it smells like fresh wood. Sawed lumber and shop class. It's the smell of things being built.
The scent is misleading. It's the mind playing tricks. For Kelly, it's the opposite of creation. She's in a hole, 12 feet underground, supine in a rubble tomb. Five seconds ago she was in a building, looking out at another blue-sky day. With a grave convulsion, the ground broke and the building died on itself, and now she is trapped. That's how disaster works—one moment it's today and all the days that came before it, and the very next moment the future becomes unrecognizable. She can't see the dust, but she can feel it in her lungs. She could be alone, jailed for hours, days, her cries getting lost in the rubble.
A sudden, flooding flash beams down, and the dark belly lights up with the halogen brightness of Home Depot aisles. One man rappels toward her. Two others shout from overhead. It's help, in the purest sense of the word. It's rescue.
The man on the rope seems too large to squeeze into the black hole, but down he comes and another follows, and then a third. These big men jam in, becoming two-dimensional like milk cartons in a trash compactor. Reaching Kelly is hard enough, but before they can lever her out they must also assess the damage to her body. She says her abdomen is in terrible pain. She could have crush syndrome: The position and weight of the heap on top of her might be holding her organs together in such a way that if she is suddenly freed, she will die. Working with a sense of controlled urgency, as quick as careful allows, they shimmy her body onto a sled-like rescue stretcher. They lace her up, top to bottom like a woman in a shoe.
Above, another group has shored up the aperture with wooden beams, crisscrossed and slanted, quickly secured with nails to hold back the rocks.
The men lifting Kelly tell her she's going to be OK, in the clipped manner of people who are comfortable but just scared enough themselves to do a job correctly under pressure. Finally, out comes Kelly from through the hole, and the feeling is relief, success. It is fleeting.
Up here, it doesn't look like success. It's a rebar sea. Fat piles of rubble form uneven crags and outcroppings. Metal and glass glint from the peaks of imploded storefronts. A Chevy Lumina tilts into a fissure. A derailed train curls like a giant silver horse with a broken leg. On the streets it's an Armageddon videogame. Victims stagger across roads, not dead but three quarters of the way there. Some lie on their backs screaming for help.
That is the worst thing, the desperation. Bigger than all of the separate horrors is the virulent panic of order gone AWOL.
Today, panic is the point. No one wants to experience the shaking terror of an earthquake, but for the rescuers who came for Kelly, experiencing all the things that make disaster terrifying is essential, because you cannot save someone who's freaking out when you're freaking out yourself. You cannot think calmly when you're staring into a rubble pile of bodies, half of them moving and half of them still. You have to have been there before. Suppressing panic during crisis takes practice, which is precisely why 150 people have gathered on this dusty 52-acre plot called Disaster City in College Station, Texas: to practice imposing order where normally there isn't any.
So, no, Kelly did not experience a real earthquake. It was a simulation, a drill. But not just any drill. It's the drill, the world's single biggest dress rehearsal for the Big One. Disaster City isn't a city but a vast disaster-simulation center designed to look and feel as close to catastrophe as you ever want to be. Each hairline crack, each mangled car, all the mountains of rubble are modeled on wreckage from real disasters, like the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles that killed 72 people and injured nearly 12,000. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing inspired the collapsed parking garage, with cars dangling off the sides like spiders from a ceiling, while the 12-foot-deep rubble catacombs resemble those from Ground Zero.
Of course, Bruckheimer is nowhere to be found. Today's action is the creative genius of G. Kemble Bennett, the 69-year-old dean of engineering at Texas A&M University. Bennett helped the university's governing body, Texas A&M University System, create the near-$100-million complex in 1997 after the Oklahoma City bombing. "I felt like it was just a matter of time before terrorism came to our shores again," he says. "Oklahoma City was a real wake-up call. Then with all the floods and the hurricanes, it became clear that we needed the capability to train." He realized that there was no place that could thoroughly train people for the entire scope of disaster, so he made it his mission to create one.
The Disaster City complex is one of three core facilities. The Brayton Fire Training Field is the largest live fuel-burning center in the world, and its outdoor classrooms are big fire props, pipelines and massive structures that are set ablaze with dummies inside to rescue. The Emergency Operations Training Center is an ordinary-looking building that houses a master computer simulation with the capacity to conjure any disaster in any place—a dirty-bomb detonation in Chicago, say, or an earthquake in Tennessee.
Finally, there is Disaster City itself, the urban search-and-rescue training ground. If you save lives, this is where you come for your skills training, to learn Superman moves like breaching building structures—being able to go through walls—and shoring, to keep collapsing buildings upright long enough to save the people inside. This is the heart of the operation, where engineers spend months building disaster scenarios so chillingly accurate that they draw rescue workers from all over the world, because there's no other place that can match its infrastructure.