This New Year's Eve was going to be spent on a 20-plus hour flight from the relative tranquillity and sanitation of Fairfax County to the turmoil, devastation and stench of death in Southeast Asia. For six Fairfax County men, 2005 would come in on the heels of the grim reaper.
A select group of six Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department Search and Rescue Team members left Dulles International Airport a little after 5 p.m. Dec. 31 on a United Airlines Flight 916 that would put them at the heart of the worst natural disaster of this fledgling 21st century. Even as they traveled, the death toll mounted and the possibility of starvation, disease and hopelessness quickened.
"Different from our usual assignment, this time we are going to concentrate on the needs for public health," said Dewey Perks, team leader, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. "We'll be concentrating on shelter, food stuffs, and public health needs this time."
The team flew from Dulles to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Singapore and finally on to Jakarta, Indonesia. They were joined by another six member team from Los Angeles, Calif., who left on a another flight out of Dulles a little after 9 p.m. that same night. They were headed for Sri Lanka.
"I usually stay behind and do the media thing. But, this time I'm going. They are giving us a seven to 14 day window to be gone," said Lt. Mark Stone, public affairs officer, FCF&R Department.
For this deployment the team was made up of four FCF&R Department members and two civilian volunteers, according to Perks. One of those civilians was Dr. William Barker, of Herndon. It was his second year in a row to be deployed in an emergency situation over the holidays.
"I'm very grateful to my partners in our practice that cover for me when I'm gone. I was supposed to be on holiday call last year when I was called. Now, this year and I have to leave again," Barker said. Composed of 16 full-time and part-time medical team members, Barker's group works out of Inova Fairfax Hospital, he said.
BARKER WAS PASSING out immunization medication to team members in preparation for their impending exposure. "Our annual immunizations take care of most disease threats. But we take extra precautions everywhere we go," Barker said.
The team had been receiving briefings by the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) and the United Nations since Dec. 26, immediately following the tsunami, with daily updates since the 28th, according to Perks. "AID has 19 people on the ground now and we will be augmenting what they are already doing," he said.
Other members of the six member team included Dave Taylor and Kent Watts, both members of the Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department, and John Tung, a civilian structural engineer. Taylor of Centreville serves as logistics manager for the group. "With what we've seen on the news and learned through our briefings, this is probably the worst situation we've ever faced," Taylor said.
"We've had a long standing relationship with AID. This is another example of a successful partnership between the county and federal governments," said, Michael Neuhard, chief, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.
"We both benefit from this cooperation. The U.S. government knows it can call on us and we are very proud to be part of this worldwide effort. There are many members of our total team that wish they could be part of this effort," Neuhard said.
The group that departed Dec. 31 is expected to be on the ground for a minimum of seven days and possibly up to 14 days, according to Perks. "But, once we're out the door it can go up to three weeks," Perks said.