The Fog of Disaster: Into Haiti With Two Tampa Fire USAR Members

March 3, 2010
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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


Roger: The people had a look in their eyes — what are we going to do? That isn't to say we didn't fall in love with the people from Haiti. They are wonderful, they are resilient, they did everything in their power before we got there to rescue people. They should be complimented for their efforts.

We are lucky here in the states — during Katrina or other events, if you need help or equipment you pick up a telephone and it is on the road. We've all seen it on the news — 50 trucks of ice, we can get it. We didn't have any of that. There was no running water; it was collected in cisterns on the roofs. They have open sewers that drain into gutters. Small children brush the debris away. I never did see a support vehicle such as electric company truck till five or six days into it. And then it looked like something that we would have salvaged years ago and gotten rid of. It is going to take a long time for them to completely rebuild.


Brian: We went to a collapsed school that had 60–100 people in it. It was a three- or four-story school that had completely collapsed. We found three people alive. We were able to get two of them out. The third had a crushing head injury that was not survivable. The first survivor was a female in her mid 20s and her arm was entrapped. After excavating, the doctors had to crawl into a void and amputate her arm. This procedure was remarkable…the rescue specialists, doctors and medical people risked a lot by going into the debris to get her out. That rescue took five hours to complete. A couple days later, we heard she survived the incident and went home.

The second victim was about 20 feet away from the first. The ironic thing was we were able to dig her out with mere hand tools. She was able to move a little bit and after much digging, she was able to come out and dust herself off. She said "thank you" to everyone, got in the bed of a pickup truck, and went home with her family.

There are also simple things. That same night, some of the neighbors down the block said they had some missing family members. As we were going down the street, you just saw bedding in the middle of the street with 30 to 40 people who were afraid to go back into the structures. We searched one structure and there was no one. We came out and a gentleman approached us. He was probably in his 30s, and he kept talking about his brother. We went to his residence; we think his brother might have died in the structure. But all he wanted was for us to stand there while he went in to get some personal belongings. He was afraid to go in the building, feared it would collapse and no one would know he was there. All we did was stand there with a flashlight. He came out with his few little things, gave us a hug and thanked us. All he wanted in the world was someone to make sure he was safe.


Roger: I was involved with the rescue at the Caribbean Market. It was a five-story supermarket, the largest in Haiti. I've heard the term "fog of war" before and there is a fog of disaster from all the information that we get. Family members in the states would call Miami to tell them of a relative who sent a text message that they were trapped somewhere. We would respond to find no survivors. People walking down the street would tell us of trapped survivors they had heard about. In many cases, much of this information was invalid.

So when we heard there might have been 150 people inside the market, we were dubious. When we arrived, a team from Turkey, maybe six or eight people had came in light and fast with only small hand tools. The Turkish team had heard voices deep inside this supermarket and through their humanitarian efforts had chiseled away in the center of the store into the basement, then crawled in. As we worked with them, we were able to confirm voices. I was lucky enough to hear the voice of a small child. I told the gentleman standing beside me that that was the voice of an angel. I actually felt chills in my back. We were able to call in some of the other rescue teams and specialized equipment we had flown over. It took 26 hours to get the first person out. It was a highly technical rescue — the acoustical equipment, battery-operated, water-cooled saws … but most of the effort came from their hearts. They were not going to quit. Florida Task Force 2 was not leaving until those people came out. All those tools were nice, but the bottom line was the team. We watched team members come out of there just exhausted; they weren't giving up. The Turkish team stayed and worked side by side with our team. This was a heavy, technical rescue that could have only been done by a team from the U.S. with the million dollars of tools and the knowledge to effect a rescue of this magnitude. It was rewarding to rescue five lives and be part of the team. I am convinced this type of rescue could only be done by a USAR team. The tools were nice, but the effort was from the heart.

Brian: You have to compliment our program manager and our task force leaders. Task Force 2 leaders made the decision that if we found you, we were not going to leave you — we were going to get you.


Brian: The dogs are typically the first on scene. If they alert to a specific situation, then we send in a second dog to confirm. If it alerts with an active bark, then we try to hail the trapped victim. If we get a response, then we know a rescue can proceed. The rescue specialists come in to do the digging, as well as the structural people, who will get involved to look at the situation to see how best to approach the excavation. The dogs attempt to be closest to the scent. Often this is a foot under or it could be buried 20 feet. And we can have multiple workers on the rubble pile when we launch a dog. The canine will take inventory and determine who is working and determine the victim's scent. It's a game of hide-and-seek for the dog.

Roger: We do a lot of training in which we practice among a variety of people and situations to sharpen the dog's ability to locate victims.


Brian: Technical rescue people operated the listening devices; the cribbing was done by rescue specialist and structural people. We all have specialties, but we are cross-trained in other's area of expertise. We are all part of Florida Task Force 2, which is sponsored by the City of Miami. There are some 20 departments that all support Task Force 2 and make up the team. We are the farthest north department from Miami. But Miami is where the equipment cache is kept.


Brian: The vast majority of the Haitian people are wonderful. And we take a lot of things for granted here. It was really humbling for me. Sometimes our priorities are not where they should be.

Roger: I left my heart in Haiti. It was a difficult deployment. You can't go to a country like Haiti and see people whose eyes are filled with pain and suffering without it affecting you. We saw the despair in the eyes of the children. I had to wonder, how they will survive after the TV cameras shut down and humanitarian efforts trickle in? That's going to be tough for the people.

I know I wasn't alone in these feelings. We went by the UN hospital in the bus, and our team doctor got out and went into the hospital. He came back with a troubled look on his face. I asked, "Are you all right?" He said, "No." He said, "It's horrible in there. There are 500 patients inside and only one doctor." It's just not right to see children suffer.


Brian: We'd go tomorrow. It's what we do.

Roger: Our bags are packed.

Roger and Brian were deployed for 12 days for the Haiti disaster. They arrived back in Tampa to a hero's welcome, one that they agree was overwhelming. As President Obama, who was holding a Town Hall meeting at the University of Tampa, introduced the two lieutenants to the crowd and a national television audience, both felt a great humility. Theirs was a team effort supported by dozens of other rescue professionals. Yet their energy, devotion and determination to do the best job set a high mark in their professional lives.

PAUL SNODGRASS, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a firefighter with the Sarasota County, FL, Fire Department and a former fire chief. He is on the faculty at the University of Florida and an adjunct fire science instructor at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, FL, and Cogswell Polytechnical College in Sunnyvale, CA. Snodgrass holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Augsburg College and a master's degree in education from the University of Phoenix. He has been writing about, designing and teaching online courses since 2005. He can be reached at [email protected].

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