As the four-engine C-130s began spooling up their massive 4,591-hp power plants, spinning six-bladed props that sliced through the unusually chilly morning air in South Florida, the 80-member Florida Task Force 2 had already secured their semi-trailers full of specialized rescue equipment aboard...
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As the four-engine C-130s began spooling up their massive 4,591-hp power plants, spinning six-bladed props that sliced through the unusually chilly morning air in South Florida, the 80-member Florida Task Force 2 had already secured their semi-trailers full of specialized rescue equipment aboard. The flight that sunny morning from Homestead Air Force Base would be a short hop. A private passenger jet would carry the rescuers to earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Included among the many specialists were two of Tampa Fire Rescue's elite and their four-legged recruits. The 2½ hours in a holding pattern waiting to land at Port-au-Prince was an indication of how much destruction lay ahead.
As Roger Picard and Brian Smithey received word they would be among the first rescuers on the ground in post-earthquake Haiti, plying skills along with their highly trained search and rescue dogs, the two Tampa Fire Rescue lieutenants knew they would be going into what resembled a war zone. After the historic Jan. 12 quake, Port-au-Prince was replete with vast destruction of buildings and infrastructure, dazed inhabitants roaming the city's cluttered streets, bodies decomposing in the tropical heat and uncounted cries for help. Seismologists have labeled this quake humankind's most devastating magnitude 7, with at least 150,000 fatalities. Both Picard and Smithey, veterans of some of North America's biggest disasters of the past decade, found that no amount of planning could have prepared them.
HOW WERE YOU NOTIFIED, AND HOW DID YOU RESPOND?
Brian: The earthquake was a little before 5 P.M. Virginia 1 and California 2 — FEMA teams were spun out first — two International Teams were requested. Our Type 1 task force is composed of 80 people and slots for four canine search specialists. With this event, most task forces took more handlers and more dogs or just more dogs. Rumors started on Tuesday night. I got a call on Wednesday morning; it looks like we're probably going to go. I'm asked: "What is your availability?" And by mid-day, "Hey, we're going; do you have your passports in order?" Once they gave us the go, we kept Tampa Fire abreast of what was going on. Then we went home, assembled our stuff, got our dogs and drove as fast as we could to Miami.
Obviously we were going to be flown to Haiti. Typically, we travel by ground so everything we need is pre-loaded and ready to go. We had to unload all of our equipment from the tractor trailers and reload it onto pallets for military aircraft. Three military C130s and a private commercial 737 were used to transport us and our equipment.
WHAT DID YOU PERCEIVE GOING INTO THIS?
Roger: Both of us grew up in Southern California, and I remember as a paper boy sitting on the front porch when a major earthquake hit. I know what they are like — I've seen them and felt the aftershocks. Watching CNN that evening before deploying, it was horrific. I had never been to Haiti but had been told it was one of the poorest countries in the world. Further, we knew we were going into something almost on the scale of biblical proportions. There were going to be people hurt, there were going to be people trapped. We already saw on the news that there was major loss of life. It was something no one can really be ready for.
HOW DID YOU HANDLE THIS UNKNOWN CIRCUMSTANCE?
Roger: You do your best, like you do on daily calls. You never know, it could be something simple or a traffic accident with four trauma alerts. In a disaster, you put your training and skills together, and you rely on your partner and teammates. You respond because there is no one else available — you're it.
Brian: They warned us the situation was going to be bad. You see pictures, and you are not sure if this was isolated or countrywide. But when we got there it was overwhelming. It was pure devastation, not only the property, but the vast number of lives lost — that was hard to look at, it is hard to imagine. We have hurricanes here, bad ones, and people get hurt. People lose their lives. But the result is mostly property damage. But over there you have both of them just compounding each other. It was a war zone, it really was.