Fairfax team comes home after saving Haiti quake survivors

After two weeks of near-sleepless nights and exhausting multihour rescue missions in earthquake-stricken Haiti, 114 members of Fairfax County's urban search and rescue team returned home to a loud and celebratory welcome late Thursday.
By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

After two weeks of near-sleepless nights and exhausting multihour rescue missions in earthquake-stricken Haiti, 114 members of Fairfax County's urban search and rescue team returned home late Thursday.

Virginia Task Force 1, one of three teams in the United States approved by the federal government to perform overseas search-and-rescue missions, arrived at Dulles International Airport via the Dominican Republic. Members of the team had been in Port-au-Prince for two weeks after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, which has left at least 150,000 people dead and 1.5 million homeless.

A 72-person squad of firefighters, doctors, engineers and other specialists left Jan. 13, the day after the earthquake, and arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Haiti the same day. Federal officials, realizing the extent of the damage, called on a second Fairfax unit. A group of 42 people arrived Jan. 15.

The Fairfax team found 16 survivors amid the stone and concrete rubble of Port-au-Prince and neighboring communities. Several of the rescue missions took 10 hours or more. Dehydration among the rescuers was common. Satellite telephone reception was poor, and gas shortages were frequent. Because of concerns about security near crumbled buildings, such as the once-posh Hotel Montana, rescue units used interpreters to talk to hungry and displaced locals.

Bobby Zoldos of Lovettsville, a battalion chief with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue who went on his 11th federal deployment to Haiti, said many of the team's rescues occurred at Hotel Montana, where workers helped seven Americans and two Haitians escape.

Zoldos, 40, and other task force members spent more than 26 hours trying to free a 27-year-old Haitian woman who was stuck between two concrete slabs at the University of Port-au-Prince. As workers struggled to free her, Zoldos said, the woman repeated, "I am not going anywhere."

"You could tell that, at times, she was starting to fade," Zoldos said. "For our guys to stick with it for that long, that's unheard of."

Officials said the Haiti deployment was the largest and longest and involved the highest number of assisted rescues in the Fairfax rescue squad's history.

Bill Barker, an emergency room doctor at Fauquier Hospital in Warrenton and a task force member since 1999, attributed the high number of "saves" to the team's quick deployment. In the past, he said, federally funded rescue teams have waited days before getting the go-ahead to depart for a disaster zone.

"There's so little infrastructure there to begin with, but we were on the ground so fast that we were able to help immediately," Barker said.

The Fairfax team, among the first rescue units on the ground in Haiti and one of the last American rescue groups to leave, has received recognition for its work. At President Obama's State of the Union address Wednesday, Rebecca Knerr, the wife of Virginia Task Force 1's team leader, Capt. Joseph Knerr, sat between Michelle Obama and Jill Biden as a guest of the White House. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has planned a hero-themed reception for the squad Feb. 9.

Since it was formed in 1986, Virginia Task Force 1 has participated in several recovery and rescue efforts: in Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Kenya after the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, at the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack, after hurricanes Isabel (2003) and Katrina (2005) and after earthquakes in Armenia, Iran, Mexico, Taiwan and Turkey, spokesman Dan Schmidt said.

The group's last overseas assignment was in Haiti in November 2008, after a school collapse in PĂ©tionville that killed nearly 100 people. No survivors were found, but the team recovered about a dozen bodies.

The Fairfax crew, like similar units in Los Angeles and South Florida, works overseas under the umbrella of the U.S. Agency for International Development. For domestic emergencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency calls it into action and foots the bill. Virginia Beach and New York also sent similar teams to Haiti.

Among the highlights of the Fairfax rescuers' work:

On Jan. 14, they found Tarmo Joveer, an Estonian-born U.N. security officer from Miami, under about 13 feet of rubble near the flattened U.N. headquarters. Nearly 40 hours after the earthquake, Joveer walked out of the debris, rescue workers said, and raised a fist in triumph.

Fairfax team members assisted a French unit in the rescue of Dan Woolley, a filmmaker from Colorado Springs who was trapped for 65 hours at the Hotel Montana. Woolley's sister-in-law Valerie Skaret is from the Washington area.

And working with others from France and Turkey, the Fairfax team helped rescue a 25-year-old Haitian woman found alive Jan. 19 under a collapsed market in Port-au-Prince.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company