SMDC History: BMDSCOM and the Guatemala earthquake

By Sharon Watkins Lang (USASMDC/ARSTRAT Command Historian)February 2, 2016

Damage to train rails done by Feb. 4, 1976 earthquake in Guatemala. Ballistic Missile Defense Systems Command located on Wynn Drive in Huntsville, Alabama, was one of the first communication links with the disaster area and would play a vital role pr... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

At 3:01 a.m. on Feb. 4, 1976, a devastating 7.5 earthquake hit Guatemala in Central America. In this nation of 5.5 million people, 23,000 died, 74,000 were seriously injured, and more than 1 million were left homeless as their adobe structures crumbled and entire villages and towns were destroyed.

The earthquake damaged the harbor, raised the seabed, and obstructed transportation routes to areas outside Guatemala City because of landslides, damaged bridges and rail lines that no longer functioned. Water, food, gasoline and medical supplies were scarce. Recovery efforts were further hindered as the central communications building was damaged and an estimated 40 percent of the medical infrastructure was also destroyed. Across the nation, electricity and communications lines were downed cutting access to the outside world.

Shortly after, The Redstone Rocket reported that the Military Unit Affiliate Radio Station, or MUARS, at the Ballistic Missile Defense Systems Command located on Wynn Drive in Huntsville, Alabama, was one of the first communication links with the disaster area and would play a vital role providing communications between Guatemala and American relief agencies.

The BMDSCOM team would become the primary relay station for the Miami Red Cross, which had radio net control for the southeastern United States. The article further explained that "since the BMDSCOM station generated such a strong signal, … [they] were assigned as net control for all emergency radio traffic going to and coming from Guatemala."

Within twelve hours from the time of the earthquake, Lowell "Andy" Anderson, the BMDSCOM MUARS station custodian and his team of ham radio operators were on the air offering assistance. Anderson recruited his neighbor Veronica Rodriguez Mullins, a native of Guatemala City, and Maj. Ross Villa, a BMDSCOM officer, volunteered his assistance. Mullins and Villa translated the often technical ham radio messages from Spanish to English. These requests were then relayed to the Nashville and Huntsville Red Cross Emergency Centers enabling them to focus upon the most urgently needed medical supplies first.

Although no records remain of this project, The Redstone Rocket noted that in the early hours following the earthquake, the BMDSCOM station handled more than 400 transmissions. In addition to the official traffic, the station was able to relay messages reconnecting families in Guatemala and the United States.

Mullins' efforts to reach her family, for example, were successful. While their home was damaged, Mullins' family survived the earthquake and its aftershocks.

The BMDSCOM MUARS station was operated entirely by ham radio volunteers. Lt. Col. John E. Steinke, chief of the Communications Command Detachment at BMDSCOM, praised the MUARS station and its volunteer crew.

"The men who operate the MUARS station are volunteers and work with the station because they like ham radio and want to help," Steinke said. "During emergencies such as this, they are able to help their fellow man and that gives them a lot of satisfaction."

The MUARS program still exists and is addressed in Military Auxiliary Radio System and Amateur Radio Program, Army Regulation 25-6, dated 3 February 2014.

Related Links: