Officers help with search efforts

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Various law enforcement agencies were among the first to arrive in Joplin following the devastating May 22 tornado. Officers assisted with search and rescue and enforcement efforts in the days following the fatal storm.

Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly said that six officers and a handful of paramedics and emergency responders took part in securing the area on Sunday night.

"We worked from about 6 p.m. on Sunday through to 5 p.m. on Monday," Epperly said. "We were assigned to body recovery, traffic patrols and to watch for looters.

"We had two officers there when [President Barack] Obama was in Joplin at the memorial service," Epperly continued. "Even though we had reserve officers pulling duty here to keep the county covered, it was all hands on deck for the rest of us. The need was there."

Epperly said the department would continue sending resources as needed, but those early memories will haunt him, and other responders, for weeks and months to come.

"You just get teary eyed for those people," Epperly said. "But it's great to see volunteers, churches and organizations jumping on board. This is what America is all about."

Cassville Police Chief Dana Kammerlohr and officers James Smith and Bill Watkins also helped in Joplin after the tornado destroyed at least 30 percent of the city.

"Charka did all the work," said Kammerlohr. "I just chauffered her."

Kammerlohr traveled to Joplin on May 23 to help in the search and rescue efforts. Charka, Cassville's narcotics K-9, has been trained to assist in natural disasters and other devastating events.

"James Smith was up there working with the Joplin Police Department," said Kammerlohr. "Bill Watkins was also up there because he lost his aunt. I called Bill to see how things were going, and he volunteered to serve as my spotter."

Kammerlohr said Watkins received a crash course in search and recovery spotting. He learned how to monitor Charka's behavior and evaluate the search area in order to notify Kammerlohr of any changes in the dog's behavior or hazards that could harm Charka or other searchers.

"It was really a team work situation," said Kammerlohr. "With the uneven terrain we were working in he would help me pick up on what Charka was doing very quickly."

Charka, Kammerlohr and Watkins were assigned to a multi-jurisdictional fire department task force from the Kansas City area. After the group was placed in a holding pattern for three hours on May 23, they were assigned to the Home Depot site off of Range Line in Joplin. They also searched a small residential area before search efforts were placed on hold due to inclement weather.

On May 24, Charka, Kammerlohr and Watkins began their search efforts in a residential area and then were redirected to the site of the Walmart Supercenter.

"We were notified that they thought they had heard tapping," said Kammerlohr. "The fire department used listening devices to triangulate the area, but the dogs determined that there wasn't anyone there. After that area was clear we were assigned sections of Walmart to search."

Charka worked at the site for two hours without any alerts, which means she found no survivors or human remains.

"We have trained for but never actually had to search this magnitude of debris," said Kammerlohr. "Charka searched very well.

"I have done several of these types of events, and this was the worst one I have ever done," said Kammerlohr. "You are always glad that you can help, but this was so horrendous. I hope I never see anything like this again."

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