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Rescue Team Back From Sri Lanka

Task force members return after setting up an aid coordination center in the tsunami-torn nation.

January 12, 2005|Monte Morin | Times Staff Writer

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — They packed for the living, and they packed for the dead.

For the living, they carried enormous crates of food and water, rucksacks stuffed full of mosquito netting, tents, malaria pills, water purifiers and painkillers. For the dead, they carried jars of Vicks VapoRub.

"You wipe it under your nose, so the dead bodies won't smell so bad," a rescuer explained.

With images of flattened villages and mass graves flickering across the television screen, six members of California Task Force 2 steeled for the worst.

But they gave out no netting, tents or malaria pills. They didn't need the VapoRub.

In the end, they learned that sometimes when you prepare for the worst, the worst doesn't happen.

Scores of well-wishers greeted the men as they made their way through a series of airports dressed in their dark blue military fatigues, four days after the tsunami struck. On a connecting flight to Frankfurt, Germany, a flight attendant asked passengers to thank the firefighters for going to Sri Lanka. The cabin burst into applause.

At least one member of the team found the attention a little bewildering.

"We're just six guys," said L.A. County Fire Capt. Tim O'Neill, 55, of Seal Beach. "We're talking about thousands of people dead."

When the team landed in Colombo early Jan. 2, the disaster was a week old. They fully expected to step into a wasteland of death, hunger and infectious disease. Instead, they were taken to one of Colombo's premier hotels -- a five-star resort complete with doormen, grand piano and poolside bar. The only danger was the wild van ride through traffic.

Colombo had escaped the tsunami's wrath -- it sits on the island's west coast, the lee side of the deadly waves. The only visions of destruction the men saw were the same they could see at home: footage by CNN and Sky News.

Vacationers in bathing suits sipped yogurt lassis and eyed the team with vague curiosity as they lugged their bright red backpacks and yellow ration crates past the lobby's enormous water fountain.

"Now I know how Salvador Dali felt," said physician Steve Chin.

The next shock to their systems came within an hour.

At the former U.S. Embassy, Bill Berger, U.S. AID's Disaster Assistance Response Team leader for Sri Lanka, told them to ditch any ball caps and fatigue jackets that bore the search-and-rescue logo.

"That's a very sensitive issue," Berger said. "We'd rather you not wear anything that refers to search and rescue. We're beyond that now."

Berger laid out the team's mission: "I need you to build me a pukka EOC."

Even the team leader, Battalion Chief Jim Powers, 52, of Thousand Oaks, a man who took great pains to express himself in positive terms, sagged. They were going to build a "first-class" Emergency Operations Center.

Instead of recovering corpses or handing out rations, they would be manning computers and telephones, compiling assessments and helping coordinate relief efforts.

He knew the work was important -- the information they collected would be used to deliver thousands of tons of food, medicine, water and temporary shelters to tsunami survivors in shattered villages up and down the coast. Every U.S. military helicopter that zoomed over the island's pristine jungles loaded with U.S. AID packages would plan its destination based on their work.

Still, the men couldn't help feeling disappointed. "You heard the man," Powers said to his team as they walked beneath the palm trees back to their hotel. "Our role here is to be mainly administrative."

California Task Force 2 is one of just two search and rescue teams in the nation that works for the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. Its members have worked in Central America, Brazil, Turkey and Jordan.

The two other L.A. County firefighters on the team were Capt. Dennis Cross, 38, of Laguna Hills and Capt. John Crain, 54, of Lake Arrowhead.

On this particular mission, the team included two civilians. Bruce Cook, a 52-year-old structural engineer from Hermosa Beach, was relatively new to the work. But Chin, a 42-year-old Huntington Beach resident and emergency room physician at Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital in Whittier, was a veteran of disasters, among them the Oklahoma City bombing.

En route to Sri Lanka, Chin warned: "You're going to have normal reactions to extremely abnormal things." And what they see may linger with them for a long time, he added. "To this day, whenever I smell wet cement, I have flashbacks to the basement of the Alfred Murrah Building."

It took almost a week to build the operations center, set up computers and fax machines, establish phone networks and help chart areas of need on multicolored maps.

Cross was sent with a U.S. AID media representative to handle journalists at the cargo terminal at Bandaranaike International Airport, the main gateway for aid coming into Sri Lanka.

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