In the Wake of Disaster: RZ’s Engineers Stand Ready to Serve

Since 2010, structural engineers Bruce Perrone, P.E. and Christopher Zajda, P.E. have been volunteering with the Connecticut State Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security’s Urban Search and Rescue Team, Connecticut Task Force (USAR CT-TF1).

Committed to being deployed 24 hours a day, seven days a week to assist with structural collapse rescue and recovery anywhere in the state of Connecticut, they are required to report for duty within 90 minutes after receiving a call.

Chris recently sat down with Marketing’s Linda Colón to recall one such mission he was deployed on shortly after being sworn in by the Task Force.

Around 11 a.m. on Feb. 7, 2010, one of the coldest days of the year with temperatures hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit, there was a natural gas explosion at the Kleen Energy Power Plant in Middletown, Conn. The USAR CT-TF1 put out the call to all Task Force members. Residing 15 miles from the disaster site, Chris was the first engineer to arrive on the scene joining dozens of first responders.

They assembled at one of the construction trailers to be briefed. The plant, which was still under construction and deemed about 90 percent complete, consisted of a tall, structural steel frame with numerous levels, pipes and equipment. Chris saw sections of pipe and structural steel members all over the area with many bent and completely out of shape. Large, wide flange structural steel building columns were also bent and some of the column’s dozens of 1-inch diameter splice connections bolts had been completely sheared off.

Tasked with helping to assess sections of the structure for stability and for potential secondary collapse, he was assigned to the first team to enter the building. Their assessments would help ensure rescuers could safely enter and search for victims. Since natural gas had been used at high pressure to purge the lines prompting the initial explosion, there was concern that a second explosion could occur at any time. This was something Chris would learn later.

They entered with search and rescue dogs doing their best to step around mounds of debris that were strewn everywhere and made it through most of the facility. Chris and another engineer had the team shore up a few locations to allow safer entry and outlined areas that rescue personnel should avoid.

Unfortunately, the mission went from rescue to recovery as the team did not find any live victims. As the night set in a team from Massachusetts arrived and Chris and his team reviewed their observations and recommendations with the newly arrived structural engineers.

At around 1 a.m., the Task Force completed their final paperwork, held a debriefing and were able to head home. Despite the intensity of the mission and the inability to locate anyone alive, Chris remains grateful his team, including the canine members were uninjured. He has also gained a special appreciation for first responders saying, “I have such respect for them and our entire team. Everyone wants to immediately rush into buildings to rescue people often with little consideration for the risks they face. I am glad I have the opportunity to identify those risky areas prior to sending rescuers in.”

Thinking back to the day he was sworn in, Chris says he was told by the state employee performing the ceremony, “Don’t worry, nothing ever happens in Connecticut.” Ironically, in addition to the Kleen Energy Power Plant explosion, Chris has also been deployed to disasters within the state including tornadoes, floods, Hurricane Sandy, house explosions, heavy snowfall collapses even searching for people who have gone missing. “It’s been quite a ride, but I wouldn’t take back a single minute of it. I have grown as a person and within my profession while finding a way to give back and, for that, I am grateful,” he says.

He also reflects on the comradery he has experienced, “I definitely bonded with my team the day of the power plant explosion as we saw unspeakable things and that bond has continued to deepen over the last 10 years. We are all here to support one another and to do our tiny part to help others. I know they would do the same for my family and me. I love being a member of the team.”

About the USAR

Established under the authority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1989, the USAR is a framework for organizing federal, state and local partner emergency response teams as integrated federal disaster response task forces. The System’s 28 USAR task forces can be deployed by FEMA to a disaster area to provide assistance in structural collapse rescue or they may be pre-positioned when a major disaster threatens a community. To learn more: