THE EX­TRA MILES

From Oak­land to Hous­ton to Florida, ur­ban res­cue crews put in over­time, heart

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Jane Tyska jtyska@ba­yare­anews­group.com

KEY LARGO, Florida — When Oak­land fire Bat­tal­ion Chief James Bowron packed his bag for a two-week de­ploy­ment to help Texas recover from one of its most dev­as­tat­ing hur­ri­canes, he never imag­ined his jour­ney would turn into a 23-day, 8,000-mile marathon to help Florida do the same.

“From Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, all the way to the south­ern­most tip of Florida, it’s been con­stant mov­ing,” Bowron said af­ter the crew spent Day 19 clear­ing brush and chain­saw­ing downed trees lev­eled by the back-to-back hur­ri­canes that brought more than 160 Bay Area search-and-res­cue spe­cial­ists to the Lone Star and Sun­shine states. “It’s been very hard. It’s very tax­ing on our team.”

Long af­ter the fe­ro­cious wind gusts and tor­ren­tial rains, crews from Oak­land, Menlo Park and South­ern Cal­i­for­nia remain to help re­cov­ery ef­forts af­ter Har­vey and Irma left more than 160 dead and de­stroyed tens of thou­sands of homes and struc­tures in the U.S. and across the Caribbean.

Bowron and many of his col­leagues were at­tend­ing a fu­neral Aug. 26 for fel­low Oak­land fire­fighter Jake P. Wal­ter, who was killed in a ran­dom shoot­ing in San Jose, when they re­ceived or­ders to head for Hous­ton. They were on the way home from Amer­ica’s fourth largest city af­ter spend­ing more than a week res­cu­ing peo­ple from Har­vey’s dev­as­tat­ing flood­wa­ters when they got the call to turn their con­voy to­ward South Florida as omi­nous-look­ing Irma closed in.

In the past three weeks, and be­fore the cross-coun­try drive home, they’ve al­ready put more than 5,000 miles on their big rigs, pickup trucks and SUVs. Driv­ing into dan­ger is what these 75

men and five women do.

Bowron, 40, was de­ployed to hur­ri­canes Gus­tav and Ike in 2008. He was also the ini­tial in­ci­dent com­man­der dur­ing Oak­land’s deadly Ghost Ship ware­house fire. In Florida, he’s the leader of the Oak­land­based Cal­i­for­nia Task Force 4 team, an elite group of fire­fight­ers trained in ur­ban search and res­cue.

“The big­gest thing for me is the safety and well be­ing of the peo­ple who work for me,” he said, “and I know that when they go home safe I’ve done my job well.”

Vet­er­ans on his team, such as Oak­land fire cap­tains John Far­rell and Kevin Nu­uhiwa, trained to­gether on one of the first searc­hand-res­cue teams in 1994 and have ex­pe­ri­enced decades of dis­as­ter through five pres­i­den­cies: from the 1989 Loma Pri­eta and 1994 Northridge earth­quakes to the Sept. 11 ter­ror at­tacks and Hur­ri­canes Ka­t­rina and Rita in 2005.

They’ve seen a na­tion, of­ten po­lit­i­cally di­vided, come to­gether to per­se­vere.

For Kevin Brown, who be­gan his ca­reer much later, that’s the big­gest take­away from the cur­rent mis­sion: It doesn’t mat­ter who’s from a red state or who is from a blue one.

“See­ing peo­ple come to­gether and for­get all their other dif­fer­ences in the wake of a tragedy is a big thing,” he said.

The con­voy ar­rived in Or­lando on Sept. 10 to ride out Hur­ri­cane Irma and pre­pare for res­cue ef­forts. An­other group flew back to Oak­land from Hous­ton, only to join their Florida crew af­ter a two-day turn­around.

“Com­ing out here to Florida, it’s more hu­mid­ity, it’s more heat,” Brown said, “but it’s an­other chance

Hur­ri­cane Irma may have a name like your grand­mother, but she packed a punch. Be­gin­ning as a Cat­e­gory 5 storm with 185 mph winds, “Ir­maged­don,” as some have re­ferred to her, wreaked havoc while sweep­ing across the Caribbean. The mon­ster storm weak­ened slightly to Cat­e­gory 4 as she made land­fall at Cud­joe Key near Key West early last Sun­day.

The con­trast be­tween Har­vey and Irma was clear: In Texas, the crews spent more time in their boats res­cu­ing stranded res­i­dents; in Florida, they went house to house to make sure those who stayed be­hind sur­vived the storms’ pow­er­ful winds and storm surge.

“I’d seen this kind of dam­age be­fore, and it’s very sim­i­lar to what I was ex­pect­ing. It’s a cat­a­strophic loss for a lot of these com­mu­ni­ties here,” said Bowron from Co­ral Shores High School — home of the Hur­ri­canes — in Tav­ernier, where the Oak­land team was based at the

The team’s fire­fight­ers come from Alameda, Con­tra Costa, Marin and Sonoma coun­ties. It’s the first de­ploy­ment for Ten­isha BernardTucker, whose hus­band is also an Oak­land fire­fighter.

“It’s been a very chal­leng­ing yet ful­fill­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” said BernardTucker. “The dy­namic part of be­ing a fire­fighter is that you don’t know what to ex­pect.”

Jeremy Wilk­er­son, who lives in tiny Su­gar­loaf Key and rode out the storm, was us­ing a small hand­saw to cut a large palm tree that was block­ing his drive­way when the Oak­land fire­fight­ers came by. Sev­eral of them used chain saws, buzzing away and turn­ing a five-hour job into 15 min­utes.

“These guys are awe­some. I could not have done this my­self. They’re amaz­ing, I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate them,” said Wilk­er­son.

Dr. Neil Jayasek­era and Dr. Brenda Reilly, emer­gency room physi­cians for the Con­tra Costa Re­gional Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Martinez, are among five civil­ian mem­bers of the team, along with two civil en­gi­neers and a Class A truck driver.

The doc­tors are grate­ful for col­leagues who fill in for them. No stranger to dis­as­ters, Jayasek­era vol­un­teered in Sri Lanka af­ter the 2004 tsunami and in Haiti af­ter the 2010 earth­quake.

“It’s chaos down here, and we’re just try­ing to help out where we can and pro­vide com­fort to peo­ple who are hav­ing a big cri­sis in their life,” Jayasek­era said.

In ur­ban search-and-res­cue mis­sions, there are no breaks. Fire­fight­ers av­er­age four to five hours of sleep a night, wak­ing be­fore dawn. They bat­tle to stay hy­drated, eat mil­i­tary ra­tions on the run and cope with emo­tional scars of what they ex­pe­ri­ence.

The team is still in Florida, await­ing word when they can make the 3,000-mile drive back home af­ter be­ing on the road for three weeks.

Dur­ing their time in Florida, they searched nearly 2,000 homes and con­firmed the safety of hun­dreds of peo­ple who re­fused to evac­u­ate.

Despite all of the hard­ships they en­counter, for Brown and many oth­ers, be­ing away from their fam­i­lies is the big­gest chal­lenge. His wife, Melissa, re­al­izes he has a job to do, so the hard­est time is when she knows their son Karsen, 10, is re­ally miss­ing his dad.

“The other day when all the kids talked about their he­roes be­ing Bat­man or Su­per­man, my kid says, ‘My dad’s at these tor­na­does and hur­ri­canes that you’re all see­ing on TV, so he’s my hero.’ That lets my wife know that it’s some­thing she can miss me for an­other day or two.”

Photos by Jane Tyska

Test­ing for dan­ger: Alameda County fire­fighter Charohn Daw­son, right, of Cal­i­for­nia Task Force 4, checks for a live power line with a hot stick in Su­gar­loaf Key, Florida. Hur­ri­cane Irma knocked out power through­out the state.

Check­ing in: Dr. Brenda Reilly, of the Con­tra Costa Re­gional Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Martinez, right, talks with res­i­dent Tanju Mishara dur­ing a house-to-house search in Su­gar­loaf Key.

A mo­ment to rest: Alameda County fire­fighter Rick Menise, of Oak­land’s Cal­i­for­nia Task Force 4, hangs out with live-scent search dog Kino at Co­ral Shores High.

Se­cur­ing sup­plies:

At left, Oak­land fire­fighter Jesse Ku­pers opens a co­conut dur­ing a house-to­house search in Su­gar­loaf Key. Above, fire­fight­ers help un­load sup­plies for vic­tims of Hur­ri­cane Irma’s fury.

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