For fire and rescue trainers, twister brings tragedy home

Man's 2 daughters killed, trailer wrecked at UM disaster response school

September 26, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - When the tornado struck, the rescuers became the rescued.

The triple-wide trailer that housed the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute was reduced to rubble Monday night as the powerful twister slammed into the University of Maryland campus.

Remarkably, all seven people in the building about 5:20 p.m. survived. But tragedy struck home when staff members learned that one of their own, Deputy Director F. Patrick Marlatt, had lost two daughters to the killer storm.

Staff members and visitors were struck by the awful irony that Maryland's leading institution for teaching disaster response should be at the center of its own disaster.

"We train people to handle these emergencies, and to have it happen to you gives you a startling perspective," said Steven T. Edwards, the institute's director. He said the deaths of UM students Colleen and Erin Marlatt, who had just left the institute when the tornado struck their car, was "beyond belief."

Edwards expressed relief that only one of the staff members in the trailer when the tornado struck was still in the hospital.

"The training paid off. They were in the building, it went dark, they dived under the desk and that's what saved them," he said. "We have good people, we have strong people and we'll be back in business as soon as we can."

The former Prince George's County fire chief said the institute trained 28,763 students last year in 1,500 programs, ranging from basic firefighting to the complex issues facing a senior commander at a disaster site. The institute, known as MFRI, conducted courses in 36 states and 12 foreign countries, he said.

Edwards said he recognized many of the firefighters and commanders on the scene yesterday because most had taken courses at MFRI. Some MFRI staff members had recently returned from rescue efforts at the Pentagon and New York's World Trade Center.

While the horrors of yesterday's scene paled in comparison, MFRI staff members found something eerily different about the University of Maryland disaster site. It was home.

Ray Hodgson, an institute instructor and a retired Anne Arundel County firefighter, spent eight days at the World Trade Center as part of the first Federal Emergency Management Agency team at the site. Yesterday, he was back on another rubble pile - his own workplace.

Hodgson said his experience in New York was very stressful. "I try to get back into a normal routine and this happens. ... We haven't had time to really unwind from being up there."

Edwards said the institute had lost almost all of its equipment, as well as 400,000 student records going back to its origin in 1930. The institute's 45-person staff was in temporary quarters, waiting to move into a permanent structure on campus in December.

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