HARRISONBURG, Virginia (Oct. 17, 2020) – Cadets and cadre from James Madison University were about to wrap up the program’s Army 10-Miler event Saturday when they were rocked by the explosion of a nearby two-story building just yards from the group. The explosion caused minor injuries to several cadets, and brought the inner hero of several in the group.
Being physically drained didn’t stop Cadet Jack Murphy, an MSIII who is also a volunteer firefighter, Capt. Michael Schoenbeck and Sgt. 1st Class Gerardo Rangel, JMU cadre, from allowing unthinking response send them toward the burning rubble to aid victims caught in the blast.
Murphy ran to his truck and donned his firefighting equipment, and then began working with the initial group of fire fighters that arrived to fight the fire. Murphy volunteered to help fight the fire for two consecutive hours just after running 10 miles. Schoenbeck and Rangel ran towards the scene immediately following the explosion and provided much need medical care to the seriously wounded prior to first responders showing up at the scene.
Within minutes of the explosion, the JMU ROTC members assessed the situation and moved into action.
“It didn’t initially register what had happened, as buildings don’t normally explode in front of you. I heard it and felt the ground shake, but when I looked up there was a ball of fire forty feet high and no building standing,” explained Murphy. “One cadet was laying on the ground seeking cover from the wood and bricks raining down. I remember telling the cadet to get up and run and being glad that they were able to do so. I remember thinking that it was weirdly empty: a man was lying in the parking lot screaming in pain but he was the only other person I could see.
“I remember a second or so of disbelief that this somehow wasn’t real, but then the training kicked in and I went to work,” he said.
Schoenbeck said his first instinct was to check on his cadets and cadre, then see what help could be provided to victims of the explosion.
“Initially, almost all 25 of us were standing within 50 feet of the building that exploded. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the building explode. Then the blast wave and sound then hit me pushing me away from the building and I took cover behind a few cars,” he shared. “After a second, I ran back towards the area to ensure all the cadets and cadre made it out of the area. I did not see anyone left in the area so I ran back to the group and told them to get accountability of everyone. Then, I saw a man stumbling from the building; SFC Rangel and I ran to try to help him.”
“The man kept trying to walk and SFC Rangel and myself ran to him and got him to stop. SFC Rangel was able to communicate with the injured man - he helped to keep him calm until EMS arrived on the scene,” Schoenbeck added. “Once I heard the first responders getting close to the scene; I ran to block traffic and help guide them into the area. I then went back to the cadets to check on them.”
Rangel said that after ensuring the safety of the cadets, he began to evaluate the wounded civilian and act as an interpreter.
“Upon finishing my assessment he didn’t appear to have sustain any life threatening injuries. At that moment I started to reassured the victim that help was on the way and that he would be okay,” he said. “In order to help the victim breathe better, I assisted him to a lateral position, this seemed to calm him down until the firefighters arrived. Once the firefighters arrived I was able to help interpret for the victim since there was a language barrier between the responding squad and the victim.”
Murphy’s said his primary goal after the explosion was victim recovery.
“I did not know if anyone was inside the building, and we’re trained to believe that all buildings are occupied unless proven otherwise. As I made my way through the edge of the debris field I noticed an individual coming out from behind a pile of rubble, covered in dust and with obvious injuries,” said Murphy. “I tried to move to them as quickly as possible, but moving through the rubble in shorts and running shoes was difficult. When I reached them, I grabbed them around the waist and supported them as we made our way towards the empty parking lot.”
“Outside the blast area, I was approached by another bystander, to whom I handed the victim off, with directions to bring him towards a designated CCP. While I was searching the rubble, SFC Rangel had pulled a victim from the parking lot out of the road, and alongside CPT Schoenbeck was rendering first aid,” he added. “After handing the victim off, I returned to search for further victims trapped in the debris. Upon the arrival of a Harrisonburg Fire Department Fire Engine, I donned my PPE and began assisting in organized response efforts.”
The instinct to act during a crisis like this was a natural reaction, Rangel explained.
“I immediately became concerned for the safety of others. After seeing that Cadets were safe my natural instincts at the moment was to look for any casualties and to assist those injured,” he said. “In my military career I have conducted many battle drills that focus on rendering first aid and prepared me to go into action. In the Army we teach our Soldiers to live by the Army values on or off duty. These values become a culture in our organizations and it helps make the Army’s Soldiers the best in the world.”
Murphy agreed and said he didn’t think twice about doing what he could to assist in the situation.
“It never occurred to me that I could not help, and instead seek cover with the rest of the unit. There wasn’t any question of me not participating in the response efforts - the hardest part was simply where to begin,” he explained.
“There’s no training that can really prepare you for that type of event, especially at a time and place that should have been safe. However, Patton’s quote ‘A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week’ applies to this as well,” he added. “I have no idea how to handle a massive explosion or Urban Search and Rescue, but I know how to search a building and I know how to put a fire out, and that would be good enough for the time being.”
Besides his firefighting training, Murphy said his experience as an ROTC cadet has also helped develop his to take action when needed.
“ROTC was the first time I’ve ever been taught how to be a leader, and not simply what a leader does,” he shared. “My experiences so far in the program have greatly improved my confidence as a leader, even in situations that I’m not familiar with. I’ve learned not just how to lead Soldiers in a combat environment, but how to connect with Soldiers and build trust while at home.”
JMU President Jonathan Alger praised the ROTC staff and cadets for their ability to think quickly and act to save lives. He said he was proud of “their heroism and courage, and extremely grateful for their service.”
“On behalf of the University community, we are beyond grateful for the health and safety of the students who experienced such a tragic situation on Saturday morning. Their bravery and commitment to supporting one another during such an unfathomable situation is humbling. I am proud to have these students representing not only the Army ROTC program but also James Madison University.”
Lt. Col. Graham Davidson, Professor of Military Science at James Madison University, said he is amazed and inspired by the way his people responded to the situation.
“Given the scale and scope of the explosion, I could not be more proud of the way that the JMU Army ROTC cadets and cadre responded. Across the formation, every cadet and cadre member relied on their military training and warrior ethos in the midst of chaos,” he said. “Three heroes emerged from the crisis and demonstrated great leadership and courage in adversity.”
“We train, educate, and inspire our Cadets to be leaders of character at JMU’s Army ROTC Program, and on Saturday our team put their training in practice and responded honorably and demonstrated excellence,” he added.