On Aug. 17, 1999, a powerful earthquake tore apart the town of Izmit in Turkey, killing over 500 people and leaving thousands homeless. Immediately after the quake struck, John Mayers, a master technician with the Fairfax County Fire Department based at the Fair Oaks station, crossed the ocean as part of the county's International Search and Rescue Team.
"We hit the ground after flying 19 hours straight," Mayers recalled. "We worked 42 hours straight."
While going through the rubble, the team made contact with a woman, stuck in a 16-inch crevasse under 20 feet of debris. For two days the Fairfax firefighters talked to her through interpreters as they dug deeper and deeper into the rubble. At last Mayers crawled into the crevasse and grabbed the woman's hand. It was still warm. She was alive.
"I'll never forget that," he said. "It was the epitome of my career."
Mayers has been on eight missions with the team, both international and domestic. The first was to Oklahoma City to assist local authorities after the 1995 bombing.
"It affected me quite intensely," he said.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Mayers reached the Pentagon less than two hours after the plane hit. But it was too late.
"We pretty much knew there wouldn't be any recoveries," he said.
On the second day of Mayers' Pentagon assignment, his daughter crashed her car.
"Thank God she wasn't hurt, but she did total the car," he said.
AFTER 21 YEARS with the fire department, Mayers was recognized on Monday when he was awarded the Firefighter of the Year award, the highest award in the department. in presenting the award, fire chief Michael Neuhard — himself a recipient of the award in 1992 — said Mayers demonstrates the department's "core values."
Master Tech. Matthew Groff, who has worked with Mayers for seven years, said he nominated Mayers not for any one accomplishment. Rather, he said, "it is his collective effort over the seven years I have worked with him that makes me feel that John is deserving of this award.
"John is a person who cares deeply about the people he works with," Groff said.
After Mayers returned from Oklahoma City, he became a peer counselor, helping fellow firefighters deal with job stress. After particularly tough situations, his colleagues would come to him to talk.
"Guys were able to talk to me because they know I've been there," he said.
"He's the most caring guy I've known," said firefighter Brian Moravitz. Sometimes when he's off-duty, he'll get a call from a colleague in a tough situation in the middle of the night and drive into the station from his home in Manassas, added Moravitz.
Moravitz started as a volunteer firefighter at Dunn Loring 18 years ago while working as a biologist for the Smithsonian Institution. After volunteering for three years, he became a professional firefighter.
"John is one of the reasons why I'm in this job," said Moravitz. "I was a total stranger, and he accepted me for coming in and trying to learn, and he showed me the ropes."
Moravitz joined Mayers on the team that went to Oklahoma City and Turkey.
MAYERS SAID it is his family that gives him the strength to keep going to disaster areas. "I stand before you today a very rich man," he told the audience Monday. "My wealth is my family at home as well as my Fire Department family."
When he has to leave for several weeks, he said his wife "puts on the tool belt.
"She has a teddy bear in one hand and a soccer ball in the other.
"I'm an incredibly lucky individual," he added.
Mayers' 23-year-old son, Jason, recalled that "it was cool waiting for phone calls" while his father was away.
"I like hearing the stories about the living conditions," he said.
The only time Jason said he was worried about his father's safety was when he went to help out after the 1998 Kenya embassy bombings.
"They had to do their work and at the same time watch their backs," said Jason. "They had military guarding them so they could do their work."
But Jason said his family was confident that Mayers would be safe.
"We always knew that he'd be back sooner or later."