The Labrador retriever indicated it had found a body in a pile of fallen bricks and timbers in Nepal, and the Canadian firefighters went to work.
The 12-man crew from the Burnaby Fire Department, several of them residents of Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, started searching with specialized equipment – acoustic devices to detect sounds under the rubble, and search cameras on articulating extensions to see where their eyes couldn’t. They tried to find the best place to start digging. They were professionals, trained in urban search and rescue techniques.
Crowds of Nepalese people would surround the Canadian volunteers, sometimes forming human chains to keep traffic and people away from their excavation. All eager to find their loved ones – if only to give them a proper cremation.
The Burnaby firefighters were among the first emergency responders from the west to arrive.
They paid their own way, initially buying their own $2,000 plane tickets, and giving up a week’s wages, in order to try and save lives in the earthquake-stricken country.
“There was an opportunity to go there and help out,” said Lt. Kris Anderson, a Maple Ridge resident.
“It’s all about helping the people.”
He had been to Nepal a year earlier on a holiday, trekking up to the base camp at Mount Everest. The Nepalese made an impression on him, as did their country.
“I just loved it. The people there, their average income is less than $100 US per year, but they are happy and hard working.”
His memory now has “before” and “after” scenes of Nepal.
“I got to compare everything, unfortunately.”
The earthquake hit with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter Scale on April 25. More than 7,000 people have been confirmed dead, thousands more missing, and hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless. World heritage sites with buildings centuries old were shaken to the ground.
Lt. Doug Petti, a firefighter from Pitt Meadows, said the scenes were like bombed cities.
“It looked like a movie set from a war movie – just piles of rubble everywhere.
“The country was devastated.”
Particularly in the rural areas, villages were shaken to the ground.
“The construction is all brick, and there aren’t any real building codes,” added Anderson.
They found people living in the ruins of their fallen homes, trying to create some level of security, and having nowhere else to go.
“As soon as things fall down, they start rebuilding, even though they’ve been through hell on earth,” Anderson said.
“So many times, they came up and said thank-you,” remembers Petti.
Anderson explained that the people of Nepal expect little help from government authorities.
“They’re used to taking care of themselves.”
The team of firefighters lived in tents near an army base in Kathmandu, supported by the United Nations, and assigned to cover a 12-kilometre area of the capital. They spent six days in the field.
“We worked from sun up to sun down, basically,” said Petti.
They were not able to dig out anyone alive, but they did help Tamara McLeod, a Calgary resident who was stranded in a remote village. Using contacts in the Nepalese military, they had her flown to safety.
They had to deal with a huge range of challenges, from trying to assess whether a ruined building was to dangerous work in, to from having to protect their rescue dogs from territorial ferals.
With southwest B.C. warned about the potential for a massive earthquake, what Petti saw in Nepal leads him to believe there isn’t enough emergency preparedness here.
“The effects of that were greater than anything you could ever be prepared for,” he said.
He was left with a sense of “the total devastation in some areas, and the feelings of sadness for the people.”
As they were leaving, team members got a surprise from Cathay Pacific Airlines – their flights would be complimentary.
“They came on board right as we were leaving, which was a nice surprise,” said Anderson.
They left whatever they could for the people – tents, sleeping bags, rations – “anything we could offer to help them – we left everything we could.”
In addition to Anderson and Petti, the team included local firefighters Dave Samson, Steve Leslie, Ian Hetherington, Neil Stevensen and Rob Hourigan.
Anderson said the Burnaby firefighters are proud of their work, as they were during flooding in High River, Alberta in 2013.
“We have a great team. It’s always great to be able to go and help out if we can.”