PORT ANGELES — They are tired and still a little sick, but the five Port Angeles firefighters who returned last week from Haiti also are filled with a sense of accomplishment.
“We’re a group of Christian guys,” Capt. James Mason said. “It was an amazing example of God leading us exactly where we needed to be.”
All are members of Independent Bible Church in Port Angeles.
The team left Port Angeles Jan. 23, returned Tuesday, and spent 10 days in between serving as a mobile aid unit, traveling from a base in the capital of Port-au-Prince to stricken areas within a 30-mile radius, often as the first help the people had seen.
On the trip were Mason, Lt. Kevin Denton, paramedic Mark Karjalainen, firefighter and paramedic John Hall and Bryant Kroh, firefighter and emergency medical technician.
The team returned two days before three medics from Clallam County Fire District No. 3 in Sequim left for Haiti on Thursday.
Volunteer emergency medical technicians Sandra Boudrou and Jay Jacobsen and firefighter-paramedic Bryan Swanberg are traveling to Haiti with a group of Seattle area nurses, and plan to return Feb. 13.
Mason had a bit of post-departure advice for the Sequim team: “I would tell them to love on the people. They need to feel that someone cares about them. Pour yourself into it.”
Devastation in Haiti
The population of Port-au-Prince is still reeling from the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck the capital city Jan. 12, leaving an estimated 200,000 dead and up to a million homeless.
While initial aid efforts focused on search-and-rescue operations, the emphasis now is on treating survivors, many with life-threatening injuries.
Port Angeles team members estimated they treated 90 to 100 people a day, with about 30 of those requiring advanced care.
A times, it felt overwhelming, Mason said.
“I thought, how much difference can five guys make?” he said.
“But then I realized that every day we are making 10 times the difference we do here, saving life and limb. It made a difference.”
The team was based at a tent camp at a Christian school in Port-au-Prince that was established by the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
From there, they traveled in a convoy consisting of a pickup and three motorbikes, with a doctor and several nurses.
The team headed out by 8 a.m. each day, and had to be back in camp before dark.
They estimated they traveled 325 kilometers over rough or non-existent roads, seeking out those in need.
Often, the pickup also served as a mobile surgery unit, treating wounds and applying vital care before transporting the patient to a hospital.
“We focused on helping the most people we could with the reserves we had,” Mason said.
Major stops were at tent cities, churches and orphanages.
Those were the toughest, team members said.
“One orphanage lost 56 kids out of 136,” Mason said. “They only pulled 20 out.”
The rest of the children, like so many of the earthquake victims, are still entombed under tons of concrete.
The surviving orphans quickly adopted the firefighters, climbing on them, wanting to be held, Mason said.
“One 10-year-old orphan girl asked if I could take her back to the United States,” Hall said. “That was heartbreaking.”
“The worst thing about the trip was seeing people in that situation,” Kroh said, “but being able to help them was the best experience.”
The team was able to get to Haiti by working with a non-governmental organization called Mission Aviation Fellowship, which coordinates Christian missions around the world, although getting to their base camp was not entirely smooth.
They had to wait for an executive jet to become available for the donated flight from Fort Lauderdale to Jacmel Airport, about 25 miles outside of Port-au-Prince, where they arrived the morning of Jan. 25.
A Canadian army helicopter took them to Port-au-Prince, set them down in a grassy field and flew off. No one was there to meet them and they had no idea what to do.
“That was the worst moment for me,” Mason said.
“I thought, what are we doing here?”
They each carried up to 100 pounds of supplies in large backpacks, and found the camp at which they were based was stocked with a full pharmacy, food and water.
They added their supplies to the store and ended up donating their food to the people of a small village.
During the trip each team member became sick, first Karjalainen, quickly followed by Denton and the others. They never knew what the illness was exactly, but recovered enough to continue their mission.
While they are all glad to be home, they also all want to return to Haiti, with a particular mission in mind.
Want to rebuild church
Mason said they want to help to rebuild a church that was destroyed in the quake.
“The church is the heart of the community. This is an opportunity to rebuild a place of refuge,” he said.
Denton said people have asked how five people could make a difference when the need is so huge. He answers that with a Bible-like parable.
“It’s like the little girl throwing the starfish back into the sea. Someone asks her how that is going to help all the other starfish in need. She replies, “It’s not — but I can help this one.”
The Port Angeles firefighters have no timeline for a return to Haiti. For now, they are still processing their experience.
Grateful for support
The team said the trip would not have been possible without the sacrifices made by the other 15 members of the Port Angeles Fire Department, who covered their shifts for 10 days.
“These guys sacrificed a ton to make this happen,” Karjalainen said.
They are also extremely grateful for the outpouring of support from the community, from supplies donated from local businesses to people who donated money to the trip.
Close to $6,000 was donated both directly to the fire station and via a Web site set up to chronicle the trip, www.mercworks.us.
Any funds not used for this trip will be donated to aid organizations working directly in Haiti, Mason said.
________Features editor Marcie Miller can be reached at 360-417-3550 or [email protected]