Unshakeable: China Lake Seabees recognized for disaster recovery efforts following earthquakes

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Equipment Operator 1st Class Gregory Torres of Minneapolis, Minn., center, receives a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal presented by Cmdr. Greggory Benton, right, commanding officer of Naval Construction Training Center Port Hueneme, to recognize Torres’s efforts following multiple earthquakes in the China Lake area during summer 2019. Torres and Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Bryan Krueger of Elmhurst, Ill., left, are instructors at Center for Seabees and Facilities Engineering Learning Site China Lake, and both volunteered to support recovery efforts for Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, families, and the local community. (Navy photograph by POC Cody Pauxtis)

Two Seabees from Center for Seabees and Facilities Engineering Learning Site China Lake received Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals Aug. 8, in recognition of their determination and dedication to disaster-recovery efforts at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif., following multiple earthquakes this summer.

For Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Bryan Krueger of Elmhurst, Ill., Equipment Operator 1st Class Gregory Torres of Minneapolis, Minn., and other members of CSFE Learning Site China Lake, Independence Day 2019 was marked by the rumblings of the earth rather than the pounding of fireworks. While far from a celebration, the occasion served as another reminder of the Seabee’s unconquerable “Can Do” spirit.

At approximately 10:33 a.m. on July 4, 2019, a 6.4 magnitude foreshock shook the town of Ridgecrest and Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. Within 24 hours, 5.4 and 7.1 magnitude earthquakes — the latter registering as the strongest quake in 20 years to hit California — rocked the recovering community. 

Since July 5, California Institute of Technology seismologists have recorded well over 1,400 aftershocks in the area.

Damage from the series of shocks left about 6,900 people without power, ruptured water mains, and resulted in two structural fires. Considering the strength of the earthquakes, the impact could have been much worse. Fortunately, for the community of Ridgecrest, the majority of their infrastructure and construction post-dates the enactment of California seismic building codes.

For Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Seabees from CSFE Learning Site China Lake were onsite and ready to roll. Despite a mandatory evacuation for all non-essential personnel, Seabee instructors volunteered to stay at the epicenter of the natural disaster and devote themselves to supporting the installation and families. 

With their water well drilling and blasting and quarry operations courses on hold, they integrated within the installation’s Emergency Operations Center and the local San Bernardino County Fire Department to lead the charge in assessing damage, repairing roads, restoring power, and delivering supplies.

Chief Equipment Operator David Cobbel, CSFE Learning Site China Lake’s officer in charge, humbly shrugs off any compliments surrounding the actions of his team.

Cmdr. Greggory Benton, left, commanding officer of Naval Construction Training Center Port Hueneme, presents a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal to Equipment Operator 1st Class Gregory Torres of Minneapolis, Minn., to recognize his disaster-recovery efforts following multiple earthquakes in the China Lake area during summer 2019. (Navy photograph by POC Cody Pauxtis)

“This is our job,” said Cobbel. “We do whatever needs to be done.”

Putting action to his words, Cobbel divided his time between coordinating with leadership to direct recovery operations, operate a forklift through a damaged, off-limits Navy Exchange, or deliver critical supplies, such as diapers and baby formula, to stricken families. 

“We could have evacuated, but we said no thanks,” said Torres, mirroring Cobbel’s attitude. “We wanted to stay put and make things happen.” 

Torres did more than make things happen by integrating into a damage assessment team. He helped restore operations by repairing roads and supplying generator power to the airfield. He also assisted a U.S. Geological Survey team by assessing the fault line to gain an understanding of the tectonic forces and better prepare for future occurrences.

Out in the local community, Krueger served as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical service provider with San Bernardino County. Responding to crises of every type, inspecting damaged facilities, and distributing supplies, he assisted 30,000 residents return to their normal way of life after many of the residents spent nights sleeping outside with neighbors in fear of being alone in their homes in case of an aftershock.

Over thirty days later, recovery actions are still ongoing. Following the events of each day, the team of Seabees gather and share notes. 

“We talked about what was hard, what was easy, and what was painful,” said Cobbel. “We never used words like impossible, couldn’t, or won’t.”

Cmdr. Greggory Benton, commanding officer of Naval Construction Training Center (NCTC) Port Hueneme, presented the awards to Krueger and Torres. The CSFE Learning Site China Lake Seabees’ unselfish response to the Ridgecrest earthquakes adds to the rich traditions and proud heritage of the Naval Construction Force.

“We put our training to use and did what Seabees do best,” said NCTC Port Hueneme’s Command Master Chief Kevin Nolan, who oversees the China Lake Seabees. “We did everything asked, and more, to make everything better for everyone.” 

CSFE Learning Site China Lake is one of five learning sites in the CSFE domain. Their mission is to prepare Seabees and Airmen for success by providing top-notch training in water well drilling and blasting and quarry operations.