LOS ANGELES COUNTY — Firefighters from the United States are helping to lead rescue efforts in Haiti in the aftermath of an earthquake that devastated the nation's capital.
Tens of thousands of people are feared trapped or dead following the magnitude-7 earthquake Tuesday. The Red Cross said Haiti's disaster relief teams were "completely overwhelmed."
Virginia Task Force 1 and California Task Force 2 were activated Tuesday evening to begin gathering personnel — including firefighters and paramedics — and equipment and flew out to the island the following day. On Wednesday night, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden authorized FEMA sending six more task force units.
Firefighters from the Fairfax County, Va., based team made a rescue within hours of their arrival, helping to pull free a security guard from the collapsed United Nations building early Thursday morning in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
"We had information that somebody was trapped in one of the buildings here and we sent a four-person recon team out, and they confirmed that with our listening devices," Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Lt. Mike Davis told CNN.
He said a 15-person rescue squad was subsequently dispatched and used thermal imaging cameras to locate the trapped victim.
"We probably went through about two-and-a-half to three stories down to get him and were able to self-assist him out," Lt. Davis said. "There was a lot of de-layering and jack hammering and then had to remove multiple pieces of concrete."
Constant updates Los Angeles County Fire Inspector Matt Levesque said the California rescue unit received reports from the ground and monitored TV news coverage before its arrival.
"We are fortunate that our group in particular is well equipped to deal with earthquake preparedness as it's something we deal with all the time here in California," he said.
"The initial goals of the unit are to get into there to help and assist in the rescue efforts of people. After an earthquake, we do have the period of time where the greatest chance of survival is in the first few days."
While the team will be looking to work with local disaster response groups where it can, Insp. Levesque said the unit is self-sustaining and trained to be able to operate without any outside organizations.
"Communications will have been hit hard and it is a third-world country as it is," he said. "Obviously there will be some people that are able to help but even the UN has been hit pretty hard there, so the people who may have the greatest knowledge may not be able to help."
Clearing rubble Aid officials in the impoverished nation are working to clear rubble from roads, build makeshift hospitals and remove bodies from collapsed buildings.
Both the Los Angeles County and Fairfax County-based USAR teams have as many as 72 personnel, six search and rescue canines and up to 48 tons of rescue equipment.
California Task Force 2 alone contains firefighters and paramedics, rescue specialists, emergency room physicians, structural engineers, heavy equipment specialists, canine search dogs and handlers, hazardous materials technicians, communications specialists and logistics specialists.
Firefighters at Fairfax County's training academy began loading Virginia Task Force 1's 90,000 pounds of equipment Tuesday evening. The team departed for Haiti from Dulles International Airport late Wednesday morning and is self-sustaining for approximately 14 days.
Dave Rohr, Assistant Chief at Fairfax County Fire and Rescue, which has members on Virginia Task Force 1, told WUSA9 that some were also deployed to Haiti toward the end of 2008 following a school collapse.
"We have special groups within the team that include medical directors, structural engineers and different rescue specialists so everybody has a specialty on the team," he said. "We work in those small groups to do certain missions when we are deployed."
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