They waited at their desks. They bent over kitchen tables and sat on bedsides. Then at dozens of homes and offices they heard what they'd been waiting for, at 4:14 p.m: a voice on the phone from the other side of the world.
Family members and colleagues of Fairfax County's urban rescue team listened over a satellite link as a spokesman in Turkey described how many places the group had searched that day, and explained that they hadn't found anyone alive--unlike the previous exultant day when they pulled four people from the earthquake rubble.
The voice--that of Fairfax Fire Capt. Ed Brinkley--also offered reassurances to family members listening in silence that their sons, daughters, husbands and wives were doing fine--another reason for the daily conference call listened to by family members across Northern Virginia.
As the Fairfax County team struggles with the aftermath of Turkey's devastating earthquake, their families here grapple with their own stress. They haven't spoken with their loved ones since the squad shipped off on short notice four days ago. They scan television news reports hoping to see a father or husband, and try not to dwell on the danger. Every day they wait for 4 p.m. when they can dial in and hear a spokesman for the squad bring them some news.
"You live for 4 p.m," said Kim Chinn, whose husband, Jim Chinn, is among the 70 Fairfax urban search and rescue workers who rushed to Turkey, with 30 tons of specialized equipment and supplies. "Each day gets a little tougher," said Chinn, a Prince William County police sergeant.
Fairfax's team is one of only two rescue units in the country--the other is in Miami--that the federal government has helped finance, train and equip to find and extract people from earthquake scenes and other disaster sites.
With financial backing from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Northern Virginia unit has been sent around the world over the last decade, from the earthquake in Armenia to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi last year after it was bombed.
For Chinn, the latest natural disaster has meant restless nights as she worries about her husband. She said she knows the group is well trained and takes every precaution possible. But she also knows there are things no amount of planning can prevent. Will an aftershock crumble a building onto them? Could they get trapped themselves while trying to free someone?
Although she doesn't get to hear her husband's voice on the daily conference calls from Turkey, hearing the group's spokesman is reassuring. If he sounds calm, she reasons, her husband is probably all right. For a few minutes at the end of each call, family members listening in get to ask a few questions as they search for reassurance.
"Just to hear them, that everything is okay, gives me confidence," said Chinn. "But it's a long time between 4 o'clock and 4 o'clock each day."
Robyn Teal has been married to a rescue worker for more than seven years, but she said she still had butterflies in her stomach as she sat at her kitchen bar yesterday with a legal pad and waited for the 4 p.m. call.
Teal, an operations manager at a Tysons Corner mortgage company, had heard news reports about the threat of disease and lack of food in the devastated areas. Yesterday's call assured her that the problems weren't affecting her husband, Eddie Teal.
The daily calls, said Robyn Teal, may not provide all that much detailed information about her husband but are important just the same.
"You want to be able to relate to them even in a minute way," she said. "It is my lifeline to my husband right now."