`Worst I've ever seen'

Volunteer: Stephen Allen supervised 500 emergency workers at the World Trade Center.

November 07, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Stephen E. Allen Sr. remembers the burning smell of the World Trade Center rubble and the dust cloud that hovered above his head even after the rains. He's willing to talk about crushed firetrucks and the burly iron workers who sobbed as they hauled away the tangled metal.

But ask about the lost firefighters and Allen -- the safety chief at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and a key volunteer supervisor in the federal rescue effort in New York City -- finds it difficult to continue.

"I can't explain it in words. And you can't explain it in pictures. Unless you were standing on the corner every day, like I was." He stops. "It's absolutely the worst I've ever seen. And I hope I never have to see it again."

Despite that sensitivity, the gruff, 51-year-old Bowie resident is determined to apply in Maryland what he learned from his 31 days in New York, where he was operations commander for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Emergency Preparedness.

"A lot of stuff you don't want to think about -- but a lot of stuff you have to think about," Allen said, "because it would do no good to come back from something like that and keep what you learned to yourself."

Allen, a Prince George's County firefighter for 15 years before joining BWI in 1997, has since 1996 been a leader of the HHS "Go" team, a volunteer group of public safety professionals that assists the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies after disasters. Team members keep bags packed and are ready to leave at a moment's notice. Responsibilities may include treating rescue workers, helping to identify bodies, even caring for search dogs.

Allen uses his vacation time to serve on the team. He has assisted with the rescue efforts for the Korean Airlines crash in Guam in 1997, the Alaska Airlines crash in 2000 and numerous hurricanes. When he goes, it's with the state-run airport's blessing: Allen and Gov. Parris N. Glendening are longtime friends, and state officials recognize that his skills are in demand.

"The nation needed that team that went up there. We should be applauding him for stepping out," said John Contestabile, director of training and procurement for the Maryland Department of Transportation. Contestabile is working with Allen to update MDOT's anti-terrorism plan in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

But some BWI firefighters have questioned Allen's decision to go to New York on Sept. 11, shortly after all flights nationwide were grounded. What followed were three days of uncertainty about when the airport would reopen and how its staff could ensure passenger safety when it did.

"We were very shocked that he could just disappear when the airport was under a heightened state of alert," said Richard Samluck, a driver-operator with the BWI fire department and president of Local 1742 of the International Association of Firefighters. "How can you just take off and leave an airport, especially an airport that was under threat?"

Airport officials say the union's complaints stem from sour labor-management relations and have nothing to do with public safety. Allen insists that his top deputies at the airport can manage well without him and that he was in touch with them regularly.

"I take my job very seriously," he said. "But I think in life, sometimes, there are things that are a bit more important than what's going on at home."

For 31 days in New York, Allen worked 18-hour shifts, half of the time in the rubble, the rest in the command center. His job, he said, was to make sure the 500 HHS workers he supervised "came out of the scene in the same shape they went into it."

Allen made sure that all workers from HHS -- among a number of state and federal relief agencies on the scene -- entered the site in a hard hat, respirator and goggles. He also supervised the veterinarians that attended to exhausted FEMA search dogs.

BWI fire inspectors Thomas Allinger and Curtis Contee and division chief Alex Herzberg, also HHS team members, joined their boss in New York.

Allinger described his first big mission with the HHS team as "exhausting, stressful, challenging -- at times even humorous. Not very often, but at times."

Some of the lighter moments: Allen, declaring that he looked like ponytailed actor Steven Seagal, trying to get a haircut, but fleeing the salon when he learned it would cost him $87, not including tip; Allinger restraining himself from Alien jokes as he took a plate of food from volunteer Sigourney Weaver at one of the cafeterias.

More often, though, there were tears as firefighters searched for their sons, fathers and friends who were buried beneath the rubble.

On site, Allen was the highest-ranking HHS volunteer, his authority second only to HHS's commander at the scene, said Mark Snyder, director for the agency's Rockville-based emergency operations center.

"It goes to show the respect we have for his expertise, that we would put him in such a position," Snyder said.

Snyder said Allen's crucial talent is working with various state and federal agencies to make sure nothing is duplicated and that no needs are neglected. "There's not just one agency in a disaster. It's not a one-man show, or a one-entity show," Snyder said.

Maryland transportation officials think Allen's experience at the World Trade Center can help the state with its emergency plans to prepare for terrorist attacks. They want to tap into his contacts with federal agencies and educate state employees about who does what in a recovery effort. Allen also is planning to use his experience to train staff at BWI, which has had no major commercial airline disasters in its history.

Yet he never knows when he will be called away again; this week, HHS officials asked if he was available for Hurricane Michelle relief. And if called to return to New York, Allen would not hesitate.

"If they needed me tomorrow, I would go again," he said. "But my wife wouldn't be real happy about it."

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