OC-Based Rescue Team Members Talk About Their Canceled Trip to Haiti

Bruce Newell (left) and Bob Scheibel (right) on duty as reserve firefighters at OCFA station 16 in Modjeska.EXPAND
Bruce Newell (left) and Bob Scheibel (right) on duty as reserve firefighters at OCFA station 16 in Modjeska.
Photo by Jim Fraser

Structural engineer Bob Scheibel is no stranger to disaster. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was flown to Ground Zero on the only flight across U.S. skies that night, to help stabilize the twisted wreckage and save lives. Last week, Scheibel was glad to get the call again to help in Haiti.

"I really felt good about it, to get to go help people out of the rubble who otherwise would perish," said Scheibel, of Modjeska Canyon.

But after five anxious days in a hangar at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, he and the 70 other elite urban search-and-rescuers of the OC-based California Task Force Five (CATF5) were sent home. Across the U.S., the Federal Emergency Management Agency mobilized nearly 300 highly trained firefighters, structural experts and search-dog handlers last week, then scrubbed their missions.

Even though survivors might still have been languishing in the rubble of Haiti's 7.0 earthquake, higher-ups decided they wouldn't be going.

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"We were really disappointed we couldn't get down there and save lives," said Scheibel. "Extremely disappointed."

Bruce Newell, an architect who is also on CATF5 and handles some of their scheduling, said FEMA mobilized four domestic search-and-rescue units in southern and Central California, Texas and Ohio. The units have years of training and experience responding to hurricanes, terrorist attacks, earthquakes and aftershocks. They were mobilized to head to Haiti after President Obama promised to do everything possible to help the stricken island nation.

Scheibel said survivors have been saved as long as two weeks after being trapped, although the normal window is three to seven days. They thought they would be sent on Thursday, Jan. 14, two days after the quake.

But there was no room at Port-au-Prince's crippled airport. The unit spent the day reducing by more than half their cache of metal cutters, monitors and other equipment, to ensure they would fit on one flight. Over the next few days, they saw TV reports of the airport being reopened, of people dying by the thousands.

Bob Scheibel and his wife Vickie, also a reserve firefighter
Bob Scheibel and his wife Vickie, also a reserve firefighter
Paula LaBar

"It was frankly really hard to watch," said Newell (who, like Scheibel, is a Modjeska Canyon resident). "You wanted to watch because you wanted to see the rubble, and see the conditions, see what was coming for you, but you weren't there doing what you were supposed to be doing."

Scheibel agreed: "Every hour, every day that passed was continuing to reduce the viability for trapped victims."

The team drilled in a mock pile of rubble, and conspired about how they could fly into the Dominican Republic, out of Miami, or even Guantanamo Bay. "We came up with all kinds of crazy schemes, but there was no one to present them to," said Newell.

By Saturday, the Port-au-Prince airport was opening up. The rescuers were ready.

"The pallets are all ready, they're sitting on the runway waiting for the plane. It could be tomorrow, it could be tonight, it could be any minute," said Newell. "But it didn't happen."

United Nations and U.S. officials switched strategies that weekend, airlifting troops in by the thousands. Late Sunday, the team was told their mission was scratched.

"Somber," said Newell of the reaction. "Very stoic, there was no complaining... everybody just said, 'Well, we're going to move on,' but it was incredibly frustrating. You can see how big the city is, and you just know there are a lot of buildings where there were people who were alive."

Newell said he didn't want to second-guess decisions from 1,000 miles away, and that security was needed as well as rescue and medical equipment. He did think looting reports were overstated.

In an e-mail, a spokesman for the Haiti Joint Incident Command said that UN officials had decided no additional search teams were required, and that USAID had not requested any. He had no comment on the FEMA mobilization. In a teleconference Tuesday, Timothy Callaghan, a USAID advisor heading the American disaster assistance response team, said there were 43 search-and-rescue teams already in the country, including six from the U.S., and "at this point, the 43 teams continue to search... especially throughout the Port-au-Prince area. Next question please."

He and other officials did not respond to a question on how long anyone could be expected to survive. Tuesday morning, the White House posted video online of a Los Angeles search and rescue unit pulling an elderly woman from the wreckage. As of Friday, 122 people had been extricated alive, and search efforts continued.

Scheibel, meanwhile, spent Tuesday on a fire truck patrolling the Orange County canyon where he serves as a reserve firefighter, keeping an eye out for damage from heavy rains.

"I'm glad to be here serving my community," said Scheibel. "But I would really have liked to be down there in Haiti."

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