Please excuse me, but I need to take first-person liberties with the story you’ll find below.
My wife, Nancy, and I moved to College Station in the summer of 2017. She had taken a job teaching Industrial and Systems Engineering at Texas A&M, and I was delighted to follow her.
Before arriving here, Nancy spent 30 years working for NASA, flying as an astronaut four times on the Space Shuttle. My own career has been a little less noteworthy. For a decade, I was a broadcast journalist. I spent another ten years working in the corporate marketing and public relations world. Then for twenty years I owned my own marketing consulting firm in the Houston area.
Since arriving in College Station with Nancy, I’ve been privileged to put together the history of the Texas A&M University System’s RELLIS Campus, on the site of the old Bryan Army Air Field, and now these “City Stories” about the most recent 30 years of College Station’s remarkable history.
As a part of the A&M System, the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service operates two of the world’s premiere first-responder training facilities. One is the Brayton Fire Training Field, established in 1960.
The other is called “Disaster City.”
You know of the “Windy City” and “Clutch City,” and no doubt have heard of the “City of Brotherly Love.”
Disaster City is a different kind of place which sprang from the mind of a visionary thinker in the aftermath of an unimaginable occurrence.
G. Kemble “Kem” Bennett is the former vice chancellor and dean of the Texas A&M College of Engineering. Before that, he was director of the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, known as “TEEX.” During his time at the helm of that agency, one of the greatest tragedies to befall our country triggered the creation of the nation’s premier urban search-and-rescue training facility, right here in College Station.
Disaster City opened in 1997.
What prompted the quest to create a place where first-responders could get a more intensive and hands-on training experience than anywhere ever before was the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.
And this is where Kem Bennett’s story coalesces with my own.
Bennett is originally from Florida. He received his bachelor’s degree from Florida State University. I’m from Oklahoma and a University of Oklahoma alumnus. Although I lived and worked in Dallas at the time of the Oklahoma City Bombing, I was in downtown Oklahoma City only hours later.
What I saw there over the course of the ensuing day makes me grateful for Kem Bennett’s vision and the service of the men and women whose skill and expertise have been honed at the Disaster City site.
That training proved key in New York City in the days and weeks which followed the events of September 11, 2001. Disaster City-trained rescuers also assisted—as did my wife—in the recovery efforts following the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.
When devastation occurs anywhere in the world, College Station-trained search-and-recovery specialists are often there.
And when the need arose much closer to home—as was the case in the early morning hours of November 18, 1999, when the Bonfire Stack collapsed on the campus of Texas A&M—men, women, and machinery from Disaster City were on hand, playing an important role in the rescue efforts which took place at the catastrophic scene.
Of Oklahoma City, Bennet says, “Before that, no one could imagine an act of terrorism on American soil, let alone an act of that magnitude perpetrated by home-grown terrorists.
“At the time, I was head of TEEX and we were the lead agency for the urban-search-and-rescue response here in Texas.
“Were we prepared for something like what happened in Oklahoma City if it had happened in Austin or Dallas or Houston?
Training at College Station’s Brayton Fire Field included some search-and-rescue instruction, but nothing on the scale of an event like the Oklahoma City Bombing. TEEX had access to land near the Brayton Field site, which is adjacent to College Station’s Easterwood Airport. The decision was made to locate Disaster City there, even before Bennett or anyone else knew exactly what purpose the venue would serve or what it might look like.
“As I remember, that’s just sort of what we started calling it: ‘Disaster City,’” Bennett says today. Eventually, it became known as the National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center.
Billy Parker was coordinator of TEEX’s firefighter training academy at the time. Eventually, he stepped in to lead what became known as Texas Task Force 1—now Texas A&M Task Force 1— the state’s emergency-response unit that emanated from the advanced instruction which took place at Disaster City.
“I give Billy a lot of the credit for what we were able to accomplish with Disaster City,” Bennett says.
“I remember him saying, ‘Firefighters put out fires and they get involved in emergency medical calls. We need to do more.
“‘We’ve got to do more.’”
Bennett and Parker began crunching numbers. What would a venue cost to realize their vision?
“It got to be $15 million and then $30 million, or something like that,” says Bennett. “Then a reporter caught wind of what we were doing, and I was interviewed about the concept.”
Bennett says he became concerned that internal enthusiasm for what would become the Disaster City enterprise was outpacing the need to move things through the appropriate channels.
“We didn’t have money committed to the idea at the time and we certainly didn’t have anyone’s approval for the plan.
“I called Mary Nan West, who was the chairwoman of the Texas A&M System Board of Regents. I gave her an overview of our vision and told her about the interview.
“She said not to worry. She liked the idea and was certain funding could be found.”
Many of the lessons learned from the Oklahoma City bombing impacted both the design of Disaster City and the training regimen which was put into place there. The facility has continued to evolve in the ensuing 20 years.
“I was able to send a couple people to Oklahoma City to offer support right after the attack,” Bennett says. “That gave us a chance to see what they were experiencing there.
“As we were developing Disaster City, we had a number of the agency heads which led the first-response efforts in Oklahoma City meet with us here and brainstorm what we could do with our idea.”
I had lived and worked in Oklahoma City on two separate occasions: once as a young radio sportscaster and again, a few years later, as a public relations manager with Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, now AT&T. My corporate office was located in the city’s old Central High School building.
Magnificently repurposed, One Bell Central was three blocks from the Murrah complex.
I left Oklahoma City in 1990 and by 1995, Southwestern Bell had moved me into a marketing position with the company’s cellular subsidiary in Dallas. It was there one spring morning that I learned an explosion had occurred in downtown Oklahoma City.
After the scope of what had happened became apparent, my boss, Walter Patterson, did something for which I will always be grateful. He gave me instructions to hire a videographer and drive the three hours from Dallas to Oklahoma City to chronicle our company’s role in supporting rescue-and-recovery efforts.
The psychological pull for me to be with “my people” following the bombing was surprisingly strong. I believe Walter understood that need and gave me the opportunity to “go home.”
When we reached Oklahoma City, word within the “satellite city” of remote news vehicles encamped in the same parking lot I had used during my time with the phone company there was that the bombing had been an act of “foreign terrorists.” There was no history at the time to suggest any other possibility.
Little did we know the real perpetrator, a U.S. Army veteran by the name of Timothy McVeigh, had already been arrested on a traffic violation some 90 minutes after leaving the scene of the heinous crime.
Search-and-rescue teams from across the country descended on Oklahoma City. One Bell Central served as the staging point for their efforts.
I still vividly recall roaming the halls of the building seeing teams billeted in cubicles and conference rooms. The morning after the attack, I watched as a unit left the building for the blast site.
There was purpose and determination in both the posture and stride of those rescuers as they made their way south along Harvey Avenue.
Roughly 30 minutes later–nearly 24 hours after the detonation of the rental truck loaded with highly-combustible fertilizer–another team came back into view from around the corner from where the carnage had occurred.
It was the unit being relieved.
As that team came closer into view, looks of complete despair and utter defeat registered on every single face.
Surprisingly, they found comfort in talking with the media, as if trying to put into words what they had witnessed might soften their emotional devastation.
Even the rescue dogs did not seem to comprehend a mission gone so horribly wrong.
By that point there were no survivors to be found.
The death toll from the Oklahoma City bombing eventually reached 168. Another 759 people were injured. But the casualty count did not stop with those who had been in or near the Murrah Building at the time of the explosion.
For many first responders and those on the search-and-rescue teams which worked the site later, their own lives were shattered by the unexpected encounter with a scene reminiscent of the ravages of war.
With insufficient training to deal with a very special kind of horror, too many suffered horrendous personal consequences: job loss, divorce, and even suicide.
Kem Bennett and his TEEX team made sure the lives lost in Oklahoma City, both in the initial explosion and the psychologically-debilitating aftermath, were not spent in vain.
The Texas Task Force 1 “white team” was mobilized in the minutes following the events of September 11, 2001. Three contingents of approximately 80 men and women make up the “red,” “white,” and “blue” teams of the unit.
Bennett himself joined in the rescue efforts in New York City after the 9/11 attacks. The experience made a lasting impression, both on the man and the training site.
“There’s a prop installation of a collapsed parking garage at Disaster City,” Bennett says. “Every time I see it, I get shivers up and down my spine.
“It reminds me of what it looked like at Ground Zero.”
Bennett left TEEX in 2009 to become dean of the A&M College of Engineering. He retired from that job several years ago, but he still teaches as a senior professor within the university’s Industrial and Systems Engineering department...alongside my wife.
Nancy calls Bennett one of the kindest and most considerate people she’s ever met. His support and encouragement has helped her make a successful transition into the academic world.
Next to his own family, Bennett says Disaster City is his life’s proudest accomplishment.
“What gets done there matters a great deal. It impacts lives on a global basis.”
On Bennett’s desk in the A&M Emerging Technologies Building are two small block remnants from the World Trade Center in New York. Next to them is a small piece of concrete from the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
On one of the walls in his office, Bennett has hung a framed photo of himself with President George W. Bush in Dallas. In the picture, the two men are walking toward an event where the president would meet with the Texas Task Force 1 contingent deployed to the lower reaches of New York City’s Manhattan Island in the aftermath of 9-11.
Framed with the photo is a signed note from the president.
“Our Nation will always be grateful to you and your team for your courageous efforts at Ground Zero,” the note reads.
“I appreciate your efforts to keep our sState ready to respond.”
I learned of the 9-11 attacks while preparing to do an on-site interview that morning...at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, on the site of the leveled Murrah Building. As part of a promotional-video project I was producing for the University of Oklahoma, I was scheduled to speak with a professor from the school’s College of Architecture who had led in the design of the memorial site.
The interview was cancelled to a later date.
Disaster can come at any time, but thanks to heroes like Kem Bennett and Texas A&M Task Force 1, the response is now immediate and greater is the cause for hope.