Monday, January 25, 2010

Calgary Firefighter lives to tell about Haiti's tragedy

Calgarians are well known for their generosity and charitable spirit. With the recent troubles in Haiti, Calgarians are encouraged to lend their support to the relief efforts in Haiti...
Bruce Barrs knew he was going to the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere. What he didn’t know was that he was going to arrive the same day a massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake would strike.

“I had gone down to Haiti with my wife, Keri, and another Calgarian to research rural health care in remote areas of the country,” said Acting Lieutenant Bruce Barrs (No. 31 C-Shift). “We wanted to assess and capture footage of how people without access to modern medicine deal with diseases and other health care needs.”

Their work was part of a project with Calgary production company Nomadic Pictures that follows Keri George as she explores the extreme side of medicine and health care in remote and under-developed areas of the world. Keri is a nurse who has participated in many global humanitarian missions. Raising awareness about this type of work and their experiences has been a goal for her and Bruce for the past few years.

It was their research that probably saved the couple’s lives.

“We were in the basement of a two-storey house in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit. We were visiting a Voodoo priestess who works as a healer, and her house was one of the few left standing in the neighbourhood we were in,” said Bruce.

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, Bruce and Keri tried to help as many people as possible, but the situation was overwhelming.

“As a firefighter, you are usually used to dealing with one site, and having all the resources you need. In Haiti, they are dealing with thousands of sites – literally the whole city of Port-au-Prince is one large site – and it’s devastating.

“We helped as best we could – bandaged what we could with the limited resources we had. As soon as we tried to help someone we were inundated with requests to help several more. We helped for about an hour, and as night approached, we decided to return back to the hotel to assess its condition and the possibility of recovering our belongings.”

Unable to find their driver, they walked for an hour and a half back to the Hotel Montana. They found their accommodations reduced to rubble with no chance of retrieving any belongings. Luckily, a representative from the Canadian embassy was roaming around the ruins and accompanied seven Canadians, including Bruce’s group, back to the embassy to seek refuge.

“We spent the night outside because the embassy’s roof was compromised. The aftershocks were unbelievable they were so powerful – extremely unnerving. We slept inside one of the dozen or so armoured SUVs, while others slept on lawn chairs, under large tents, or on the tennis court,” said Bruce.

Upon arrival, Bruce offered to assist in any recovery effort needed and informed the Canadian ambassador of his and his wife’s work-related skills. The next day, their offer to help was accepted.

The couple became part of a search and rescue team that included Canadian Embassy staff. There had been reports of Canadians buried alive at an office building directly beside the Hotel Montana and Bruce’s group was to attempt to locate and rescue any survivors. Another team of six was to go on a reconnaissance mission to assess the status of the airport.

“We rescued two ladies who we located under concrete and rubble remains – one had been buried for 17 hours and the other for 21 hours. That gave us a pretty good feeling,” says Bruce.

That night they were evacuated back to Canada with approximately 100 others on a C130H Hercules aircraft that had arrived in Haiti to bring relief supplies.

“It was a terrible thing to go through. It takes time to initiate a response and we saw the despair, the look of hopelessness from [the Haitians’] side while they were waiting.

“One man assisting us at the office building had lost close family members and yet he came out to help people he didn’t know. . . It was good to see the rescue and recovery teams arriving and also how Haitians were helping each other.

“I still wish I could have done more.”

Bruce says the memory of feeling helpless and not able to assist in the way he is used to will stay with him for quite some time. Having seen the devastation, he knows Haiti not only needs our help now, but for years to come.

“Just getting Haiti back up to the standard of where it was when it was considered the poorest nation in the West will take a lot of resources and effort from outside the country,” said Bruce.

"Haiti desperately needs us.”

***photos are property of Nomadic Pictures – please contact them if you wish to re-produce.
***Post courtesty of Heather Hastie

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