They spent six days combing the rubble with dogs and a device that can detect people scratching and tapping beneath the surface, but they didn’t find anyone alive.
By the time a team of Burnaby firefighters touched down in Nepal, the focus was on “recovery,” which is code for finding bodies. Despite the grim assignment, they would do it again in a heartbeat.
“The suffering of the people and the magnitudes of destruction, … everybody was definitely moved by it all, … moved in a way that they wanted to help more,” said Mark Pullen, a retired firefighter who helped organize the team. “I’m really happy to be home. Six days was long enough.”
On Monday, a group of Burnaby firefighters arrived at Vancouver’s airport into the arms of wives and girlfriends after a week in Nepal, helping with recovery efforts following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that has left more than 7,000 people dead.
The team consisted of roughly 20 firefighters from Burnaby, two more from Mission and three dogs used to sniff out people in the rubble, dead or alive. The men partnered with Canadian Medical Assistance Team, a volunteer humanitarian charity that helped get them on the ground.
The quake hit on April 25, and the team arrived by Day 3. They camped in a United Nations tent city set up outside the Kathmandu airport. The men were dispatched to specific areas, including a collapsed UN office, to help locate the dead.
They didn’t pull anyone out of the rubble, but they used their sniffer dogs to locate bodies, leaving coordinates for others with heavier equipment for deeper digging.
“We can only go so far by hand,” Pullen said. “But we were pretty sure there were people in there. You could smell it.”
The team was also instrumental in locating missing Canadian hiker Tamara McLeod. According to Jeff Clark, vice-president of the firefighters’ union, the team called Senator Yonah Martin in the middle of the night, and Martin helped them get coordinates for the missing hiker. They then talked to their new friends, the Nepalese army, and negotiated for a helicopter to retrieve McLeod, along with other missing hikers.
“It was pretty impressive for us to be able to help out that way,” Clark said.
No one pays for the firefighters to help; the team raises money to cover its own expenses. That said, Clark was blown away by all the help they received. Before departing, the firefighters contacted Pacific Blue Cross, and roughly 20 minutes later, they were all insured for the trip. Cathay Pacific, the airline company, flew the team for free on a moment’s notice and bent over backwards to let the dogs in the cabin.
“We said you can’t put the dogs in cargo, because if they’re down there, they are stressed out and can’t do their job,” Clark said. “If the dogs had to go in cargo, we weren’t going. For the first time ever, they got them in.”
Then, during the flight, a woman approached, curious about the canines. When she learned what the team was doing, she offered to help with tools. Her husband was chairman of the parent company of Milwaukee tools, and when the team landed in Hong Kong, company reps delivered $10,000 worth of tools to help.
By the end of the trip, the team left most of their supplies and equipment behind. They gave their tents and sleeping bags away to homeless families, and returned to Vancouver exhausted.
Firefighter Dave Samson said it was tough when they weren’t able to recover bodies, but people were thankful anyway.
“I was overwhelmed at the Nepalese people, at how appreciative they were of us being there, even if we didn’t recover their loved ones,” he said on Monday, after his bus arrived at Fire Hall No. 1. “We were there to help them and show them people of the world cared.”
Samson said he would absolutely do it again.
“It felt like the right thing to do as a human being, to go and help when you see what those poor people are going through,” he said.