Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department's Training Academy overflowed Monday afternoon with anxious families waiting for the return of their loved ones from a mission of mercy.
They were the last to leave the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast. But as they walked off the charter buses that brought them from Dulles International Airport to the Academy's fire apparatus garage on West Ox Road, most seemed to have left a bit of themselves with those still struggling with the aftermath of those two atmospheric harlots — Katrina and Rita.
"The television and other news don't do it justice. The devastation is unbelievable. It's beyond belief. I felt bad leaving. I don't think they are anywhere near ready to resume their lives," said Battalion Chief Mike Brown, Alexandria Fire Department, who spent 26 days in Hancock County, Miss.
Fifty-two members strong, they were the fifth and last Northern Virginia Team to return home after two, three and four weeks of hurricane duty in Mississippi and Louisiana. They included members from the City of Alexandria, Fairfax County, Fairfax City, Arlington County, Prince William County and Loudoun County fire departments.
This joint effort was recognized by Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department Chief Michael Neuhard when he told the returning team members and the 90 plus family members, "We as a region have come together in an unprecedented way. We work together in this area on a regular basis but now this model has been transplanted to a whole new area of the nation."
Since September, when New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast were devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, six Northern Virginia jurisdictions have provided five separate teams of firefighters and paramedics to Mississippi and Louisiana. They have not only worked day and night to reestablish area fire and rescue services but also to help begin to rebuild the community infrastructure literally uprooted by those storms.
"You have to talk to the people daily to find out what is really going on. Many still do not have any place to live," said Captain Clayton Thompson, Kingstowne Station, Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department, who also spent the last 26 days trying to bring order out of chaos.
Captain Lawrence Nyers, of Mount Vernon District's Penn Daw Station 11, was amazed by the "good spirits of the local people who had lost everything. They loved us to death. It was absolutely amazing how they kept a smile on their faces."
That local attitude also stuck in the mind of 19-year veteran Firefighter Mike Cross, Alexandria Fire Department. "Their resilience was amazing. People who had lost virtually everything were out there with us helping others who had also lost everything," he said.
But those smiles and that resilience didn't lessen the magnitude of the job that still needs to be done to Alexandria Firefighter Eric Creischer. "They need a lot of help. Just two months after the storms too many people have forgotten about them," he said.
"They treated us great and couldn't thank us enough for being there. They basically became our second families," Creischer said.
As for their own families, relief and joy was accompanied by pride in what the firefighters had accomplished. "We're very excited to have him home and very proud of all their accomplishments," said Jody Nyers.
That sentiment was echoed by Franconia resident Elizabeth Campodonico whose husband, Juan, is a technician assigned to Fairfax County's Merrifield Station. "I'm very, very happy he is home. But, I'm also very proud that he went. It was a very good experience for him," she said.
"We talked constantly by phone and he was very happy with what he was doing. He was helping people who really needed them," she said.
In addition to their families and friends, the team was greeted by the chiefs of each of the departments represented by the coalition. They each praised the team's efforts and particularly thanked the families for their support and sacrifice.
"Your willingness to set aside your personal lives was a natural extension of how we work everyday. This was truly a leap of faith for you family members and we can't thank you enough for your support," said Tom Owens, chief, Fairfax City Fire Department.
"We are so proud of what you have accomplished and so grateful to have you back. You have made a real difference in people's lives down there," said Chief Gary Mesaris, Alexandria Fire Department.
"You are a remarkable representation of what we do here everyday. What you learned down there will enable you to seed the ground in your individual departments to make us even stronger here to meet what ever challenges we might face," said Arlington County Fire Chief James Schwartz.
Speaking for the team was Deputy Chief Dave McKernan, Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department. He had extended his stay in the hurricane area to a full month to serve in a leadership/coordinating capacity.
"I'd like to thank the chiefs. They took a chance. They stepped up to the leadership task in putting together this regional effort. And our families supported us all the way. As for the team members, you showed how it was supposed to be done and left a legacy of cooperation," McKernan told the audience.
Prince William Fire Chief Mary Beth Michos summed up the event by recognizing the upcoming holiday. "We have never experienced a catastrophe like that in this area and that's something to be truly thankful for at this time of thanksgiving. But, you have left an incredible mark with the people of Hancock County," she said
Following the accolades and recognition, each member of the team was presented with a certificate of recognition by their individual fire chief. Then it was time to catch up on family matters and reflect on their experiences and those left behind who are still dealing with the aftermath of the worst hurricane season on record.