Searching Massive Debris Fields, A Crash Course from a Seasoned Worker

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas Texas Task Force 1 Team Manager Susann Brown knows a thing or two about search and rescue.

She's been a part of the search and rescue efforts for most of the worst U.S. disasters since 2000. Including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

"Most recently, to Moore, Oklahoma last Spring, and then the West explosion," said Brown.

The challenges search crews in Ukraine are facing after a Malaysian airliner was shot down is something Brown is all too familiar with.

The crash site is spread out over several fields in eastern Ukraine. It's up to the search and rescue teams to account for every piece of debris and human remain.

Searchers are trained to take the chaos of a miles-wide debris field, and find some order

"You can systematically manage that search, and be very effective in whatever it is you're looking for," said Brown.

Searchers look for patterns in debris. In the Malaysian flight, one pattern was how closely the victims were found together.

"That tells me the airliner stayed together all the way down. It didn't break apart during decent," said Brown.

The patterns give searchers an idea of how big or small the debris field is.

"So you determine what that search area is, how big is the debris field you actually have to cover," said Brown. "You determine the perimeter of that, and you take what's inside and divide it into segments."

Brown says it's a labor intensive job, but an essential part to giving closure to families, and evidence to authorities. A job that changes you.

"It lets you see, first of all, how life can go from every day normal, to completely devastated in a heartbeat," said Brown.

And the job isn't without rewards.

"One of the most rewarding parts of the job is to go to a situation where people are having probably one of the worst days, or worst experiences of their lives, and doing what we can to make it just a little bit better," said Brown. "And when we know we've done that, then that's extremely rewarding.

Texas Task Force 1 is based in College Station and sponsored by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service or TEEX. It's the most deployed urban search and rescue team in the country. For more information, click on the link added to this story.