CHARLOTTE COUNTY - Three days boiled down to a matter of hours for six Bradenton firefighters stationed at a parking lot off the waters of Charlotte Harbor.
As part of the Tampa Bay Regional urban search and rescue team, Bradenton Fire Lt. Kenneth Jenkins and firefighters Jim Reynolds, Brian Knuckles, Barry Cornelison, Eddie Corsino and Brian Desch were one of the first special operations teams to arrive in Charlotte County hours after Hurricane Charley charged its way into Florida through the mouth of the harbor on Friday.
Seventy-two hours later, the team's ready to go home.
"I'm so excited, we get to take showers," Knuckles joked with his colleagues.
The Bradenton team, along with crews from Hillsborough, St. Petersburg, Tampa and other counties, conducted search and rescue missions within collapsed structures, looking for signs of life amid the dusty rubble of bricks and wood that were once part of the rustic buildings adorning downtown Punta Gorda.
Officials say at least four people died as the hurricane cut through Charlotte County, and at least 16 deaths were reported statewide.
The Bradenton team said they did not find any of the dead in the areas they searched.
"Luckily, nothing was found," Reynolds said.
Bradenton firefighters received almost two years of urban search and rescue training from Hillsborough County's team before the agency acquired its first heavy rescue truck in January.
Clint Roberts of Hillsborough County's fire and rescue special operations team, who helped oversee the group effort, said the Bradenton team's first mission was impressive.
"We brought them in like little brothers," he said. "We're really proud of the work they've done."
Search and recovery
Bradenton's six firefighters were just one group among the hundreds of Florida law enforcement officers, emergency officials and National Guard members who entered the hard-hit area bringing in tides of relief.
"We feel so blessed about the support we've received from different parts of the state," resident Marilyn Mizell said Monday, standing on the wooden porch of her 78-year-old home along West Marion Avenue, one of Punta Gorda historical district's major arteries.
Mizell's 4-year-old son Ben watched a National Guard truck roll past their home while playing with his toys in the front yard.
"I want to be like the Army men," he said. "They're the good guys."
Broken windows, cracked walls and fallen palm trees surrounded Mizell's home. The 39-year-old and her husband, John, 43, feel they narrowly escaped the storm's severity, especially when they look at the caved-in roofs of the houses to their immediate right and left.
"To say God didn't have his hand over our house," she said, her voice trailing off. "It's unbelievable."
Once the hurricane winds picked up past the estimated 145 mph, the Mizells' house, which they've owned more than seven years, began to rumble and shudder. The couple ran out of the home with their son and sought refuge in a church's recreational center less than a block away.
"It sounded like a bomb had dropped," Marilyn Mizell recalled, as the family huddled inside an electrical closet at the center.
The family did not have running water or electricity Monday afternoon, but the inconvenience didn't seem all too important to the family. Marilyn, who is a former student of Manatee Technical Institute, said escaping the magnitude of the storm's strength - unscathed - is still sinking in.
"You walk around like it's surreal," she said. "Like it's a dream."
A sense of purpose
Six piles of equipment and pillows lined a red blanket the Bradenton firefighters laid out on the overheated asphalt of Charlotte County's abandoned civic center along U.S. 41, which has served as the Tampa Bay group's base for the past four days . The six Bradenton firefighters, who arrived in Charlotte Harbor at 2 a.m. Saturday, awaited relief from another six-member Bradenton team on Monday afternoon.
"That's why they switch us," Corsino said. "When you're in the heat, it takes a toll on you. You start making mistakes. There are people out there; you can't make mistakes."
The six retraced their steps to the courtyard of the three-story Charlevoi condominiums on Monday, which is adjacent to the civic center and was one of the first scenes they responded to. Muddied pieces of insulation coated the condemned structure's pink-colored walls and aluminum balconies as the firefighters walked down the building's pathways littered with glass, shingle, mangled aluminum and wires.
Resident Jim Orth praised the six from the second story balcony, offering them wine and other goods for their efforts, an offer the firefighters graciously declined.
"I know they're here to help people, but they don't get the pay they deserve," Orth told the Herald, "and they not appreciated enough."
Across the street from the team's camp, which consists of beige army tents and emergency trucks, is the wind-torn Best Western Water Front Inn. Its parking lot serves as the county's temporary morgue, housing the casualties of Charley.
The long hours, the little sleep and the heat are just three factors the firefighters said they have to put aside when responding to such disasters.
"Everybody wants to put their training to work," Jenkins said. "When it happens, it makes you feel good to be here and help."
Corsino said he feels a sense of purpose.
"It's unfortunate for these people, but it's rewarding," he said about his job. "They're lives are destroyed, but when they see us, they're reactions are rewarding. It's nice."
Corsino and a few of the other firefighters slept on top of the agency's fire truck for less than two hours Saturday night with only the breeze sweeping in off the harbor to keep them cool.
"I'm ready to go home - see my sons and wife," Corsino said. "It's tough seeing this. This could have been me."
As they wrapped up their 72-hour deployment Monday afternoon, the six felt their first urban search and rescue mission was a success.
"This has been a great learning tool for us," Knuckles said. "It's too bad it had to be a disaster, but that's the nature of our business."
Aimee Juarez, public safety reporter, can be reached at 745-7095 or at email@example.com.