Local firefighters prepare for grim mission in Haiti 

An emotionally wrenching and physically arduous corpse-collection mission awaits South Bay and San Francisco emergency workers in Haiti.

Local firefighters and support staff are preparing to deploy next week to help collect bodies and rescue any remaining survivors of Tuesday’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake.

A task force comprising fire agencies that stretch from San Francisco down through the Peninsula and Silicon Valley is tentatively scheduled to depart for a one-week mission to the devastated nation on Jan. 25, according to Harold Schapelhouman, chief of the Menlo Park Fire District, which sponsors the task force.

The timeline is tentative. “I doubt we’ll stay on that schedule,” Schapelhouman said.

The 70-person unit will relieve similar teams from across the United States that are already working in Haiti. The work is being coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The job will be bleak, with most victims expected to be found dead, Schapelhouman said. Survivors are sometimes found alive more than two weeks after an earthquake, but such instances are rare.

“As we prepare our guys to go out the door, a lot of us who have been out that door understand [body collection] is probably what we’re going to be dealing with,” he said. “I don’t get the impression that we’ll walk away when the rescue phase is over.”

Task Force 3, as it is called, has been deployed over the past 20 years in the wake of a host of disasters, including Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina.

The team has extensive body-recovery experience and it’s prepared for such a task in Haiti, according to Schapelhouman.

“A lot of us believe this will go over 100,000 fatalities,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing to try and get your head around, but everybody’s ready.”

Of the 230 task force members, 70 will be deployed to Haiti while the rest will remain in Northern California to continue their local public safety roles, Schapelhouman said.

The members include firefighters, doctors, dog handlers, structural engineers, heavy equipment operators and communication experts.

The lack of long, strong airstrips on the island nation is creating deployment challenges for the task force.

The task force’s logistics experts are trying to figure out which gear to shed to ensure its personnel and equipment can be safely carried by a single C-17 aircraft, according to Schapelhouman.

The unit would typically be transported by a pair of C-17 planes or by a C-5, which is a larger style of military transport plane.

jupton@sfexaminer.com

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