Their work was done, the tents folded, and the shovels packed. The search dogs were gathered. Now all the Fairfax rescue workers had to do was wait for the huge gray cargo plane to lift off from Istanbul and take them home. That's when the images and sounds -- horrific and joyous -- came back to them like a disjointed newsreel.
They could see again the people digging on piles of rubble with bare hands, trying to locate their relatives' bodies. They could see the exhilaration in the dusty face of a 7-year-old child who reached the surface unharmed. And they could hear the wailing voices of women echoing through the pungent air as they mourned their dead.
For nearly a week, based at a tent city in Izmit, Turkey, near the epicenter of the merciless earthquake, the 70 members of Fairfax County's Urban Search and Rescue Team hunted for survivors. But it was only yesterday, on their flight home, that the members said they had time to stop and digest what they had seen and done.
"I remember that first live victim. To pull him out and see the expression on this face -- it made the whole trip worthwhile," James Chinn said. "That will stick with me for the rest of my life."
More than 100 family members and colleagues cheered as the C-5 cargo plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base just after 3 p.m. yesterday. As the plane came to a rest and the engines shut down. Chinn and the rest of the crew formed a semicircle on the tarmac. There they were lauded by the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which sponsored the mission, and Baki Ilkin, the Turkish ambassador to the United States.
The Fairfax team is one of two commissioned by the federal government to respond to international disasters. The other team, from Dade County, Fla. arrived this week in Turkey to resume the work.
Yesterday, Chris Matsos, holding his wife with one hand and his 11-year-old son with the other, stood on the tarmac and said he couldn't help but feel sadness alongside his relief at being home.
Along with other team members, he'd worked in Nairobi and Oklahoma City after the bombings. But the Turkish devastation was so much worse, and the crew sometimes felt their efforts weren't enough. Like his colleagues, Matsos got little or no sleep most nights, and the days blurred into one another. But on the plane he and the others finally had time to discuss the people they'd managed to save.
"When things started to wind down, you start to think that you did get out four people," said Matsos, who had found only corpses in Oklahoma City and Nairobi. "This was the first time we got to do our job."
Elizabeth Kreitler, a canine specialist, said the image that flickered through her mind on the flight home was an elderly woman with tears streaming down her wrinkled face, pleading in Turkish as she pointed to the rubble.
Kreitler didn't understand the words, but she understood that the woman wanted the Fairfax team's dogs to search for her family. But Kreitler knew form the way the dogs were acting that no one was alive there.
"It just breaks your heart," Kreitler said. "There was a lot of heartache."
After the ceremony at the air base, the crew members were bused back to the Fire and Rescue Academy in Fairfax for a reception with friends and family.
For Mike Davis, the atmosphere at the reception was so starkly different from where he'd spend the past week, "it's almost as if I wasn't there," he said. His young daughter clung to him while she snacked on Cheetos. "It's like I lived another life."
Davis said he found himself thinking yesterday of a woman he and others worked for eight hours to free -- how he never, in his entire life, felt so tired. When the woman emerged, he checked her from head to toe like a newborn baby. The crowd cheered when it way she was safe, he said, but then the same crowd began to wail in pain, remembering those still unfound.