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Unique Texas facility prepares first responders for major disasters

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Simulated train derailments, earthquakes and other emergencies can all be found in a 52-acre complex known as Disaster City in College Station, Texas, where elite rescue teams learn to save lives.

“There is no replication of this type of thing,” Texas Task Force 1 training manager Stephen Bijun told CBS News. “There are a lot of smaller sites that have a little bit of this, but nothing that I know of in the United States, or even in the world, has a disaster on this scale.”

Texas Task Force 1 is one of 28 nationwide rapid-response Federal Emergency Management Agency search and rescue squads, and it uses Disaster City as its training area.

Disaster City features more than a dozen disaster scenarios, each based on a real-life disaster, including a flat parking garage built beneath the World Trade Center.

“So people come and build these shores to help secure the structures,” explains salvage expert Kevin Matheson.

From 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to the Surfside condominium collapse, Texas Task Force 1 has been on the front lines of the nation’s greatest disasters.

Like all task force members, it’s a second job for Mathieson, who works full-time as a firefighter.

“These situations basically train us for any disaster in the world,” Matheson said. “It sets it up where it’s very realistic for us.”

Task forces train for technical rescues that require planning and engineering skills and sometimes even use volunteer hunters.

“It’s a perishable skill, the things we learn here,” Bijune said. “They’re so technical and so specific that … if you’re not constantly swinging that hammer, or using that saw … it gets destroyed and you’re not ready to be able to do it again when you need to.”

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Janet Shamlian

Janet Shamlian

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