Ukrainian-American firefighter-paramedic works amid rubble in his home country

Oleg Klepach discussed his search-and-rescue work with the nonprofit organization Project Joint Guardian


This article was originally published on DirectRelief.org and has been reprinted with permission.

By Talya Meyers
Direct Relief

When Russia invaded Ukraine, California firefighter and paramedic Oleg Klepach took to Facebook.

Ukrainian-American Klepach grew up in the city of Lviv, but moved to Sacramento, Calif. with his parents after the fall of the USSR. He's worked first as a paramedic, then a firefighter, for more than two decades. He currently works for the Cosumnes Fire Department and has three children.

When the Ukraine war broke out, Klepach began recording Ukrainian-language videos for first responders in the war-torn country, drawing on footage of fellow firefighters to demonstrate how to force a door, extract people from a vehicle, and pull a hose line. He posted them to his Facebook page.

Then a fellow firefighter reached out to ask if Klepach wanted to put his skills to work on the ground in Ukraine.

Eric Hille established Project Joint Guardian as an international nonprofit organization made up of firefighters. When the war started, he began laying the groundwork to get a team of first responders into the country and invited Klepach to join him. "By myself, I wasn't able to do much, versus working on a team," Klepach said. He accepted. Fellow firefighters began covering his shifts, so he could take the assignment.

Direct Relief supported Project Joint Guardian with a $50,000 grant to transport first responders to Ukraine and help them purchase needed equipment. The organization also supplied the firefighters with Emergency Medical Backpacks intended for triage care, and shipped equipment to the region on their behalf.

Klepach is currently an "urban camper" somewhere on the outskirts of Kyiv - he can't say exactly where - where he spends his days searching for people in areas hit by missiles, clearing debris, and anything else that's needed.

He and his fellow Project Joint Guardian teammates are there at the invitation of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, and the Minister of the Interior has stopped by to express his thanks. He and his teammates have been told that the trail they've blazed has inspired other teams of first responders to follow in their footsteps.

But what he sees horrifies him. "They are killing innocent civilians. There is no question about it," he said.

Klepach sat down to talk to Direct Relief about his work in Ukraine and what it's like to return to the country he once called home.

Direct Relief: Tell me about being invited to do search and rescue in Ukraine. How did that happen?

Klepach: I've got to say, we had to jump through a lot of obstacles. First of all, we had to figure out a way to get into the country. We couldn't just pick up our firefighting gear and jump on a plane and come over and say "Here we are! Put us to work!" It had to be official.

So we worked with the Ukrainian and the American embassy in order to get the right paperwork in place. And then we had to get in touch with the Ukrainian fire service. Luckily I have a Facebook page I have been sharing with firefighter experience and knowledge. So I was actually known by a few firefighters. Actually about 5,000 of them in Ukraine.

And so I've been reaching out to my contacts to help us out, to achieve our goal. At the end, we were given the green light by the Ukrainian fire service to come into the country and assist them with search and rescue missions.

Direct Relief: Why did you want to go?

Klepach: Well, first of all, I could not stand alone seeing that Ukrainian firefighters are working hard - you know, up to today, over 30 firefighters have been killed. And I felt that we could make a difference by going into Ukraine, assisting Ukrainian firefighters.

First of all, we provide firefighting equipment and some gear and medical supplies. Additionally, [we were hoping] it would be a huge morale boost for many firefighters, feeling that they have this feeling of a broader group, that someone from a different country, which in this case would be the United States, Germany, Australia, is coming over as a team to help them out.

I couldn't just stand alone and say, "Oh, that's OK, you know, they can deal with it." It was just not going to happen for me.

Direct Relief: When did you arrive in Ukraine, and how did you get there?

Klepach: First of all, we flew into Poland, Warsaw. We were unable to fly into Ukraine because active war is going on. And then we got some of our equipment. We drove to Kyiv, and linked with the local Ukrainian rescue fire department, and started working with them. We're still waiting for some equipment.

We've been working in the outskirts of the Kyiv area, where Russian forces came in and they actually had been staying for a week or two in a certain area. And we stayed in a couple more cities where the Russian military had actually killed civilians and dropped bombs and missiles on the residential buildings.  

And we helped in search and rescue, debris removal. Today, we helped firefighters to remove some debris from the fire station and did some work so that the fire station could be functional. We do all kinds of work.

Direct Relief: Let's talk a little bit about the work that you're doing there. What do your days look like?

Klepach: We have a plan that we've established for the day. For example, a few days ago, we went to this town, which had a significant damage, and we were literally searching five to nine story apartment buildings; we went up into every single apartment on this search for people or for bodies. And also we search for any important documents. We put those into a backpack that we have with us and give them to the police department.

The next day, we went to this smaller residential neighborhood and there were a couple of homes that missiles had struck. And in one of the buildings, we found the body of a resident who has been under the rubble for probably three weeks or so. We had to clear out the debris, which took about four to five hours, 15 to 16 firefighters. We cleared out the area around the body, and then the police had to come in and do an investigation. At that point our job was done, and we would move on to the next building and help clear out debris or search for bodies.

I'll be honest, unfortunately, in some places where the missiles would hit, we weren't able to find the body, although there were reports that people were in houses right before the strike. But with the missile strike and the high temperature, we were unable to locate anybody.

So we did as much as we could to help those families to find some kind of closure.

Direct Relief: What is it like, the area where you are now?

Klepach: I've never been to a war zone. But driving into some areas and seeing what has happened to those streets and buildings ... It's hard to describe. It's kind of like a movie, but there's still smell of burning metal, and there are horrific, horrific scenes. Those images are probably going to remain in my mind for a long time.

It’s different seeing in pictures or on the news versus being in person and seeing it. It's a magnitude of destruction that seems like someone decided to destruct and kill everything in its path.

Direct Relief: You are Ukrainian by birth. How does it feel for you to see your original home in the midst of war?

Klepach: Honestly, that's not how I want to see Ukraine. I was in Ukraine four years ago with my family, and this is just a totally different Ukraine. It's very sad.

One family that we talked to, when we told them we were unable to recover their body, the only thing we found was the wristwatch that they described their father was wearing on him right before that missile strike. That's all we could do, and then this man, he was crying, and we had to comfort him. I could not hold my emotions back. And not only myself, but members of our team.

I do feel very emotional. Sometimes I do tear up to contain emotions, seeing what Ukraine and the Ukrainian people are going through.

Direct Relief: What equipment have you and your colleagues needed, and have you been able to get it? What are the conditions like that you're working in?

Klepach: We have our basic firefighter protective gear, we have some shovels, we have some crowbars, some basic tools. Also, we have some battery-powered tools and a generator that can charge them. Tomorrow, we're going to have more equipment when it arrives, and it will be more tactical rescue equipment.

There is no water, there's no light, there's no electricity, there's no restroom. Literally, you are an urban camper. You have to depend on yourself.

Direct Relief: Are you optimistic that you’ll continue to find survivors?

Klepach: We're optimistic that we will find people because the airstrikes don't stop. Every night we hear the sirens go out in Kyiv, and we were told, God forbid, if any airstrikes hit any areas near us, we are able to respond and help the local fire department rescue team with the search and rescue of people. So I hope that doesn't happen, but [if it does] I hope there are still survivors out there somewhere.

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