From Norfolk to Haiti: Rescuers fly out, evacuees fly back

A plane going, a plane coming.

Two crowds of passengers eager to get somewhere else.

The first group is clad in hard hats, boots and rugged blue uniforms. It’s 5 p.m. Friday at Norfolk Naval Station’s passenger terminal, and about 80 search-and-rescue personnel – most of them firefighters from across South Hampton Roads – are about to fly to Haiti.

On the Tarmac sit two hulking Air Force C-17 cargo planes, their ramps open like hungry mouths. They swallow four Ford F-350 trucks, then 19 pallets of gear filled with everything the Virginia Beach-based team will need for 10 days of work: food and water, generators, tents, concrete saws, fiber-optic cameras and triangulation sensors used to locate the source of human sounds in rubble.

This is Virginia Task Force 2, one of 28 urban search-and-rescue teams in the United States, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to respond to man-made or natural disasters.

Its veterans have worked amid the ruins of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, in the smoking rubble of a section of the Pentagon in 2001, and along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Around 11:30 Wednesday night, 240 team members’ phones across Hampton Roads rang with an automated message many were expecting.

During the next few hours, the hazardous materials experts, structural engineers and rescuers converged at the Virginia Beach warehouse where their gear is always ready.

Around daybreak Thursday, the 80 members tapped for this mission piled into buses and headed to the airport, four tractor-trailers’ worth of gear behind them.

They could do nothing but wait. They spent Thursday at the Naval Station’s terminal, watching TV footage of the crisis. They spent Thursday night at a Norfolk hotel, trying not to think about the cruel arithmetic of disasters. After about four days, the chance they’ll find survivors alive begins to diminish. They wanted to be on the ground before all hope was lost.

“It’s a lot of hurry-up,” said Dennis Keane, a Virginia Beach Fire Department battalion chief and one of the task force’s leaders. “And it’s a lot of wait.”

It took hours to load the C-17s. Finally, around rush hour, as most Hampton Roads residents headed home to start a three-day weekend, the team began its three-hour journey to Port-au-Prince.

“If we go there and we save two people, our mission’s accomplished,” said Harold Hill, a Beach firefighter.

Keane has lost count of how many times he’s deployed with Virginia Task Force Two since it was formed in the late 1980s.

Going into the aftermath of a natural disaster can be tricky. They might be the first relief workers stricken survivors see, and they will happily share some food and water. But they can’t lose focus.

“Our first mission,” Keane said, “is those who may still be entombed.”

Ted Itschner, a Beach firefighter who lives in Moyock, N.C., figured the devastation in Haiti would be overwhelming.

“When we rolled in after Katrina, I thought I knew what I’d be looking at,” he said. “And I was in awe of the destruction.”

Haiti, everyone knew, would be worse.

A few minutes before 9 p.m., the air crew announced the plane would be landing shortly. Team members laced up their boots, stretched skullcaps over their heads and strapped on their hard hats. Many closed their eyes for a few final minutes of rest.

The ramp of the C-17 opened and hot, acrid air wafted in. Within minutes, forklifts were buzzing around the plane’s mouth as it regurgitated its cargo. The F-350s with Virginia plates were the last thing off.

“Time to go to work,” said Robert Hnatko, a Chesapeake firefighter, before heading out into the unknown.

It took only a few minutes for the crew of the companion C-17 to reconfi gure its bird into a passenger plane by adding a long row of seats down the middle.

With its engines still running, the plane absorbed about 90 Americans.

Most had been living in or visiting Haiti when the quake struck.

Woodson Pet it-Frere, a physical therapist from New York, had come to Haiti for the first time in 24 years to visit his parents, who split their time between Haiti and the United States.

Across the aisle sat Giles Charleston and his family, who moved to Haiti last summer from Washington.

Charleston works as chief information officer at Fonkoze, a micro-finance institution with 42 branches across Haiti.

He was in the firm’s Port-au-Prince headquarters when the quake struck and had to kick down the door to get out. He rushed home, where his three kids were fine. His wife, who was in the United States, urged her husband to bring their children back as soon as possible.

Charleston thought she was worrying too much. The kids would be back in school in a couple of days, he reasoned.

Then he started looking around. Corpses littered the streets in some areas. The government was crippled.

“My concerns are epidemics, health issues, diseases and law and order,” Charleston said.

He said the earthquake is Haiti’s equivalent of Sept. 11: a wake-up call. A time to mourn and then move on, resolving to be stronger.

As the plane rumbled toward South Carolina, where it was stopping for fuel before continuing on the McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, Charleston’s kids started waking up.

It was a fter 2 a.m., and 2 -year-old Naica’s ears hurt from the pressure. Naahmie, 11, and 10-year-old Julien were hungry.

Naahmie angled for a trip to Bojangles’ when they got to their destination. Charleston confessed an urge for Burger King.

Once the kids are settled in Silver Spring, Md., with his wife’s family, he’ll head back to Haiti via the Dominican Republic. He has to get his company’s IT system running again, and there’s an asset recovery plan to work on.

“I’m a soldier at heart,” he said. “I can’t wait to get back.”


Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 7:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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