When a 40-foot-high basin wall at the Gatlinburg water treatment plant collapsed last week, some 850,000 gallons of wastewater spilled into the Little Pigeon River with enough force that it nearly swept a pickup truck away with it.
In its wake were several tons of concrete rubble, multiple water treatment pools also on site, a nearby river already running swollen and swift from overnight rains, and two missing workers.
In such a catastrophe, for anyone not trained as an emergency responder the first question might well be the most daunting: Where do you start searching?
One of the first officials on the scene was Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller, a certified instructor in the National Incident Management System.
NIMS is a template of procedures developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and now practiced by fire departments and other emergency-responder units throughout the country.
Miller credited that uniform NIMS training for helping to quickly decide on and implement a multifaceted rescue plan that involved about 100 people among the Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville fire departments, along with the Sevier County Rescue Squad.
"Definitely, in all of this, our primary focus was the victims," Miller explained. "We started wide with our search pattern. ... We decided, 'Let's plan big, let's plan early, let's start as broad as possible.' " Three teams were dispatched along either side of the river, searching approximately four miles of shoreline to the Pigeon Forge city limits for any sign of someone trapped in a "catch point" among the rocks and branches in the water, Miller said.
Other crews were tasked with dredging and draining the remaining tanks and pools at the plant.
Meanwhile, efforts began to bring in a construction crane to lift the debris of the wall.Whentheycouldn'tfind a crane with enough power, incident commanders shifted gears and brought in heavy track hoes with air hammers instead.
"We were eliminating all other options while at the same time going through the long, drawn-out process of breaking up the concrete of the wall," Miller said. "We had several different rescue operations going on simultaneously."
After more than nine hours of searching, both victims' bodies were discovered under the concrete wall.
Although the outcome was tragic, Miller said the operation would not have gone nearly so smoothly without the shared NIMS training among all the emergency crews involved.
"It breaks down the incident into manageable parts," he said. "It's a great resource management tool."