A day with the Urban Search and Rescue Team, the people handed some of the Nashville Flood’s saddest, dirtiest tasks

May 13, 2010

“Kinda reminds you of ‘Nam, don’t it?” says Mike Campanali to Michael Ewing, walking through what by all rights should be a field behind the Mill Creek Golf Range on Lebanon Pike. It is Thursday, May 6, though, and five days after the Nashville Flood the washed-out area still looks like a vast rice paddy.

Ewing agrees: it does look like ‘Nam — at which point he and Campanali trade some pleasant memories about the war. An outside observer can’t make out much of what they’re saying, above the slosh of water. But it quiets long enough for Ewing to say, “That was different over there. It doesn’t matter here what you did there for recreation.”

Both of these men are normally Metro firefighters out of Station 3 in East Nashville. Today, though, they’re with the Urban Search and Rescue team — the post-apocalyptic clean-up crew the city has dispatched to some of Nashville’s hardest-hit areas. They’re here to do damage assessments. They’re here to find bodies.

“We’re out here nearly a mile. How far are we gonna go?” says Ewing. “I don’t see nothing over here.”

He’s got every right in the world to complain. Like everyone else in sight, Ewing stands knee-deep in a godforsaken marsh near the intersection of Lebanon Pike and Omaha. He’s got nothing on that offers any serious protection from the toxic gumbo of raw sewage, motor oil, mud, snakes, lurking debris and maybe just a smidge of water that submerges the area in the wake of the great flood.

“Somebody must have been camping here,” says Ewing, sifting through a pile of debris at the perimeter of the marsh. Camping-camping or living-camping?

“I think it was just camping,” he says, holding up a pack of New Year’s party poppers — evidence of outdoor fun, not homeless misery.

The team’s task is especially grim today. They aren’t recording new potholes or saving somebody’s cat or even getting a car out of a ditch. The dozen or so firefighters and cops here are hoping to find Daniel Alexander Brown — an 18-year-old man who’s been missing ever since the previous Sunday, when he and two friends went tubing on Mill Creek.

“Lebanon Road is where he went in,” says Fire Capt. Terry Secrest, explaining why they’re at the driving range.

The task is perhaps most unpleasant for Deputy Fire Chief Buddy Byers. He’s acting as liaison between the team and Brown’s family and friends at the site. Standing knee-deep in sewage beats waiting to tell an anguished family the worst news they could possibly hear.

“We’re sending out a boat in a little bit with a cadaver dog,” Byers says. At this point, five days after Brown’s been missing, the deputy chief confirms what everyone already suspects: they’re dealing with a recovery, not a rescue.

After he secures a helicopter, Byers laments the situation: a lost kid he would really like to find, but who is somewhere between here and — well, he’s not sure. Meanwhile, half the city’s in ruins.

“There is just such a big area that was flooded,” he says. “This is probably as big a flood as in New Orleans. This is once-in-a-lifetime.”

The makeshift command center where Byers dispatches the searchers rests on a secluded little dirt path. It runs between the marsh, where Search and Rescue seeks any sign of the missing Brown, and the gravel lot where his family and friends wait. Their forlorn presence weighs heavily on Byers.

“I just had to get away from them for a minute,” he says.

They’re not kidding themselves. At this point, it would be enough just to find the body. They’ve already found his tube, one of his friends tells the search team.

“We just came back from searching in the canoe,” says Mike Scroggin, who played with Brown in a band called Reason of Haste. (“We’re sort of heavy blues,” Scroggin explains.) Scroggin’s one of many friends of Brown’s from his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who came to look for him.

“We got here yesterday,” says Jacob Klein, another friend of Brown’s. “Yesterday we pretty much wasted. We we’re waiting for the city to do something. I mean, I understand they’ve got a lot on their plate right now.”

Still, Brown could be anywhere, and it’s clearly starting to frustrate his friends.

“We’ve got a lot of area to cover,” says Ali Hemyari, a friend of the Brown family.

Two hours earlier, Daniel Brown hadn’t even been on Byers’ or Secrest’s agenda, nor that of anyone else sent on search-and-rescue from Fire Station 23 in West Nashville. As people waited for assignments, all eyes at the station house had been glued to Police Chief Ronal Serpas’ TV announcement that he was moving to New Orleans — news that brought an explosive round of cheers and applause.

“I’m just very happy for him that he’s gotten to further his career, and it’s in his hometown,” says one fast-thinking USAR team member — lest the reporter in the room “misunderstand” the celebration.

Truth be told, everyone here looks to be in good spirits, all things considered. Those not gathered around the bulky TV — awesome when it was built, now as outdated as a VCR — sit around the large kitchen table in the back. Awaiting their dire instructions, they all have that brash gallows camaraderie that civilians encounter mostly in Homicide reruns. (Given the daily horrors of the job lately, that’s how most of us would prefer it.) When the Red Cross brings pizza, the room is abuzz with stereophonic calamity talk:

From the right: “He was sittin’ with his head right between his legs, breathing about four times a minute.”

“Now he’s going to some public nursing home, and I’m going to have to pay for it.”

From the left: “This is good!” (The pizza, that is.)

From both sides of the room: “Is that Honda Accord still working?”

“Yeah, and we put about 100,000 more miles on it.” Here, everybody laughs.

Fire Engineer Bart Balthrop says that this shift — “C-Shift” — hasn’t yet had a chance to get exhausted and miserable.

“We haven’t got it so bad as the B-shift,” he says. “They’ve made like 20 runs in the past couple of days. We’re 24-on, 48-off. This place sort of turns into our home away from home.”

Once the teams get their orders, the well-rested levity continues in the field. After a hair-raising trip (to those not accustomed to driving like cops) up Briley and a stop at a fire station at McGavock, the first two stops are very uneventful. One goes to a very dry Pennington Bend subdivision, the other to a neighborhood off Lebanon that’s already been checked.

They’re headed back to the station when suddenly they all turn their lights back on. It’s the Daniel Brown call. As it turns out, the search will lead them from the driving range to Mill Creek Bridge, the next stop on their journey.

Brown was last seen at the bridge at Murfreesboro and Millwood, a few miles south of the Mill Creek driving range, explains Metro Police Officer William Waters when they arrive. He scours what looks like a thatch of rainforest near the intersection.

There’s a lot going on here that isn’t helping. First, it’s near a busy road — one that’s half blocked off, making it tough to reach. Second, there’s a TV camera that needs to be shooed away. Third, as everywhere in the flooded city, dangerous debris floats unseen in the murky water. Shards of wooden palette and strips of twisted metal, presumably from one of the temporarily closed restaurants nearby, lie waiting to impale somebody.

Everyone steps gingerly, quietly.

By the time the day is over, the team will have sent helpful civilians up the creek in a recovery raft. They will return empty-handed. The parents and friends of Daniel Brown will get no resolution, no end to their worry. Brown himself will not be found, not today, not tomorrow — not even by Wednesday, May 12, when this paper went to press.

The searchers themselves will slog back to land, exhausted. They’ll canvass the gawkers on shore — God knows how many there are — seeking tips for the next place to look, and the next.

Some of those watching say they’re witnesses. One seemingly credible onlooker sends them along to another step on what’s beginning to feel like a wild goose chase, somewhere along Elm Hill Pike. But the searchers will check it out. That’s what they do.

“I guess we’re going again,” says Byers.

[Note: Shortly after the Scene went to press Wednesday, May 15, a body believed to be that of Daniel Alexander Brown, 18, was discovered by searchers near Massman Drive at a remote section of Mill Creek.]

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