It was a Tuesday afternoon on January 12, 2010, and while most of the school kids in the U.S. were getting ready to end their day, students in Haiti were in the middle of their school session. In just a few seconds, an already impoverished nation would suffer the calamities of a catastrophic...
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OPERATIONS IN HAITI
As we peered through the window of the armored vehicles assigned to us (all vehicles assigned in the embassy are armored), the landscape was surreal. At any place and at any time during our recon mission the vehicle could have stopped, and a search and rescue mission could have begun right then and there. The magnitude of the devastation we were seeing was unimaginable. Bodies were strewn on the curbs by the dozens in some places. Collapsed structures were evident as far as the eye could see. Thousands of Haitians were walking the streets in what seemed like a daze. Our team leaders and Creole-speaking members tried to prioritize what information we were being given and what the locals were telling us as well. Direction was given from the United Nations that we were assigned any structure that had a high probability of occupancy at the time of the quake. Since schools were in session late in the afternoon, they were a priority. Apartment buildings and hospitals were also first on the list. With these assignments and with the knowledge from our recon teams, we began our first rescue within six hours of arriving in-country.
A six-story university had collapsed pancake style (floor upon floor). We arrived at this location based on locals telling us that they were hearing children still alive inside and trapped beneath the unreinforced concrete. A father of one of the children and some of the neighbors had begun to tunnel underneath one of the floors using some of the most rudimentary tools available, but it was working. When task force members arrived at the school, they went right to work. FL-TF1's structural specialist conducted an assessment of the building and provided the analysis to the rescue team manager. The objective was to reach the first-trapped student as soon as possible, and then to begin searching the rest of the multi-story school. Once survivors were confirmed, additional resources were requested. Since our heavy tools had still not arrived, we began our extrication with the most common tools in the fire and rescue service: the sledge hammer, the pry bar, the flat and pick-headed axe, and the Halligan.
As night began to fall, it was clear this was going to be a lengthy extrication. This was the first night, we were five hours into our first operation, and there were thousands still trapped. The same thought ran across all of our minds. How were we going to get to everybody who still needed our help? As the night wore on and rescuers continued the extrication, large dump trucks preceded by front-end loaders were rolling up and down the street picking up the deceased who were lying in the roadway. Team Manager Captain Jeff Strickland kept everybody on task and focused; rotating crews and assigning responsibilities constantly kept rescuers' thoughts from roaming. Our Creole team members were now talking to the trapped young man and were keeping his family abreast of our every move. He was alert, in pain, but was lucky to be alive. He was in a void space and only had his left leg trapped below the knee. His lower left leg proved to be severely trapped, and for a while our team physicians were prepared to conduct a field amputation. But incredible work with hand tools freed the trapped victim in the early-morning hours of the next day.
There would be many more rescues in the following days — so many that this mission would be recognized as the most successful in the entire history of the United States urban search and rescue response program.
At 6:03 one morning we were awakened to a rocking sensation. In a matter of 10 seconds or less, the ground swayed, and hundreds of car alarms began to sound on the embassy grounds. Everyone jumped as soon as the word "quake" was yelled, and we instinctively went into our evacuation plan. But seconds later it was over; a 6.0 aftershock had shaken us and the capital city that morning. None of us was hurt, but for many of the island inhabitants and us, too, this strong aftershock added to the psychological strain of such an enormous catastrophe.