Fire Marshall

ITV: Neville Fouche

TITLE: Fire Marshall

LANGUAGE: English       

DATE: March 26, 2010      

 

TIMECODE

 

TEXT

01:20:37

WHAT IS YOUR NAME AND YOUR TITLE HERE AT MINUSTAH?

 

My name is Neville Fouche and I’m the Fire Marshall in MINUSTAH.

 

01:20:48

DO YOU REMEMBER WHERE YOU WERE AT THE TIME OF EARTHQUAKE, WHAT YOU WERE DOING, WHAT HAPPENED AT 4.53?

 

Yes, we were at that point in the PX, when it happened. So, I was standing in the PX when it happened.

 

01:21:09

WHAT HAPPENED DIRECTLY?

 

Well in my case, I knew exactly, well, everybody’s got a different opinion but, I realized immediately that we’ve got an earthquake and at that point in time, it was running to get out of the building. Everybody was storming out of the building and waiting outside until everything calmed down. From that point on, the first thing I did was to check with everybody in that area was I lucky, the PX didn’t collapse. I moved all over Log base to see whether there is any injured people. There was one staff member that jumped out of the aviation building. He was not critical and we just stabilized him and at that point in time we started hearing radio calls, from that point in time the only person that I really recognized was the Deputy Chief of Security saying “We need assistance, Christopher is down.” So that’s when I moved back to the fire station, got all my equipment together and with the assistance of two security officers, with an escort, started the slow move up in the direction of Christopher.

 

01:22:40

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SO YOU RAN OUTSIDE OF THE LOG BASE, WHAT WAS HAPPENING ON THE STREET?

 

It’s, it’s, really unexplainable the amount of people that were on the street, I’ve never seen so many people. Everybody just left the houses and everybody moved towards the streets. So, it was a massive amount of people. We did not have an aggressive crowd. It was more a group of people in shock.

 

One of the windows of the fire engine got broken, but that was more in an attempt to stop us. Because everybody wants you to stop to help them. But apart from that, we were able to slowly but surely go through the crowds. But it was clear the shock and the disbelief in all the people. And at that point in time it was still to unreal for us to really appreciate what’s going on. That was the first time that we really saw the damage.

 

01:23:48

Necklace 1

DID YOU HAVE ANY CONCEPT AT THE TIME, WHAT WERE YOU EXPECTING BEFORE YOU GOT TO THE UN HEADQUARTERS? WHAT WAS GOING THROUGH YOUR MIND?

 

If you turn out to any incident, you always try to prepare yourself for what you are going to see. And we’ve got an old saying in the fire services, “when you turn out to a fire and it’s somebody else’s house on fire, it’s not a problem. If your own house is on fire, it’s a different story.” So, the emotional part of going to your own building, it’s our building, that made it difficult. We never really imagined the amount of damage we saw when arrived at, I couldn’t believe what I saw. But at the same time, moving up the hill, it was clear to me, that we will see a lot of destruction. This thing we started realizing passing the building looking at the buildings, the magnitude of the earthquake, it was clear to us it was a big earthquake.

 

01:25:00

Necklace 2

WHEN YOU DROVE INTO THE UN COMPOUND, WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?

 

It’s, it’s to some extent unreal. One of the first things that I’ve done was walk towards the building and ask the people that work there, were speak about the people that, staff members that were there at the time, the military, the UNPOL. Everybody tried their best to do something. And at that point in time I asked them how many survivors do we have? And the answer I received from the top was “3.” So they had at that point in time, still communication with three staff in the building that were speaking back to them. They were, all three were rescued over the following 24 hours, even mined that we have find rescue service here, but you need extremely specialized equipment to do that kind of structural collapse rescue. So we were waiting equipment. So the first I would say three days, were the difficult days, where you had to work with very basic equipment and low staffing levels. The crew that you worked with was a difficult crew. You are working with national staff that some of them don’t even know whether their family survived. Some of them don’t even know whether their houses are still standing. Some of them already know that they have lost families. You’ve got staff members that are helping you that lost friends. Some of them lost husbands. Some of them lost wives. So you deal with a very unreal scenario where a group of people that’s not really supposed to do it, but out of the urgency, they are still doing it. That’s for me the difficult part, that was the difficult part for me. To deal with that. And I believe, and I’ve got a lot of respect, specifically for the national staff that stayed behind. That said “we will help you.” Knowing very well they’ve got family members that need help as well. For the internationals, regardless their position, regardless what they do in the day to day life, they were to prepared to go the extra mile and to do the hard difficult work on till the experts arrived.

 

Then things became a bit easier and it changed over to more coordination.

 

01:28:00

GOING BACK TO THAT NIGHT, I MEAN IT TOOK YOU ABOUT AN HOUR AND A HALF TO GET THERE.

 

It took us about an hour and a half to get there. We eventually had to take a lot of bypasses and we ended up at the residence of the SRSG. And from there we realized we cannot move the fire engine, we can only move small vehicles. So we packed all the equipment of the fire engine on the pick ups and patrols. And we moved from there to Christopher. Because at that point in time the roads just became too small for any fire engine to move any more. Looking at what happened in the first let’s say 12 hours, it’s only specific moments you remember. You know, from the moment of the earthquake, I would say, for the first three weeks after the earthquake, it’s like you remember special moments, the bad moments, the extremely bad moments and the good moments. And the in betweens, just fade away. They come back but it’s like every day the puzzle is getting more and more into place. But initially when you return from the scene it’s like you don’t know what happened and slowly things come back.

 

01:29:35

Necklace 2

Necklace 2

WHAT ARE FROM THE FIRST NIGHT THE MOMENTS THAT STAND UP ON YOU? YOU WERE THERE, SO YOU WERE AT DIFFERENT POINTS STANDING ON THIS RUBBLE. WHAT DID THAT LOOK LIKE?

 

We already had trembles that night. That was a big concern and we had quite a lot of them afterwards during the weeks that followed. And I think the most special moment, I don’t want to call it special, but the moment that stays in you mind is the bodies you see. That you know there is nothing you can do. It’s too late. Looking at the building you already know, and I know from my own experience, that looking at how the building looks, the survival rate will be extremely low. And you need to prepare  yourself mentally to deal with the large amount of people. You think about the things you have, some people come back into your mind. You thnk about them. So that was difficult to do then. What helped me a lot and I think helped a lot of other people, is the fact that the first phase, we were so busy, that there was really no chance to sit back and to take in what was happening with you. It was just ongoing.

 

The emotions of the people that you work with when some of their friends come out, especially in the beginning, and they know who came out. Sometimes they knew, sometimes they didn’t know. We tried our best and I think we were very successful in not exposing any victim. We made an urgent request to all the media people and camera staff not to take pictures of the bodies, because to me it was… you need to draw a line somewhere and that to me was a line. Don’t take pictures of that specifically. But you see the faces and you remember and things come back. That was difficult. The other difficult thing I had as well was we had radio communications very quickly with one of our security officers in the building. And we were trying really hard in the beginning to rescue him, to get him outside and out of the building. And at one point in time before the rescue teams arrived, I made the difficult decision of saying “we are not going to continue.” “we are going to wait until we’ve got a qualified section rescue team, because now we are running the risk that we will kill him if we do the wrong things.” It turned out to be the right decision. But you stood there and you always wonder whether you did the right thing or the wrong thing. The positive out of it is he came out alive without a scratch. Now, having that special moment of somebody coming out of the building alive, we had two specific cases; one on day 4 and one on day 6, Tamu and Jens. The same thing with Jens on day 6. You know, if you look at why did we hear him? We had machines working 24 hours a day. One of the machines had a breakdown, hydraulic pipe broken in the machine, we stopped the machines from working, it was 4, 5 o’clock in the morning, and we decided we are going to wait for the technicians to come in to fix it and we will rest for a while.

 

That silence, 6, 7 o’clock in the morning, nobody is moving, and just in that special moment, he knocks. Why? We don’t know, but he was saved by a broken machine. He was saved by the fact that it was so quiet, that somebody could hear him knock. And just the whole idea of you know, you stop again with your rescue operations, getting in the teams working, making communications within, and everybody gets positive. So that’s the special moments, the sad moments, there is a lot of sad moments. If you talk about things that came out, it’s not fun to see this.

 

01:35:35

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IN HOURS AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE, WERE YOU AWARE OR WERE YOU ABLE TO COMMUNICATE WITH PEOPLE AND COULD YOU HEAR PEOPLE? COUD YOU TALK TO PEOPLE? THERE WERE TEAMS THAT WERE GOING UP TO THE TOP THROUGH THE RUBBLE.

 

Yes, if you look at the communications that we had. In the beginning we had direct communications with three people in the building. They came out later on. We didn’t hear anybody else. At that point in time we knew about Tamu, that was in a good condition. Jens then only came out on day six, was in reality lying under about five meters of rubble. So, the search and rescue dogs, we had four teams of search and rescue dogs those days, the mi(…) came the first. Not even the dogs picked him up, that’s how deep he really was. So, in the least case, he was so deep, that communications was completely impossible. But the people we had communication with, in most cases, I remember the one lady very well. She was seriously trapped under the office table and she was extremely clear and calm. The survivors in the building, for reasons unknown to me, sometimes stayed so calm, they were doing better than the people outside. It was like, in one case, Tamu complained to us about the fact that we were not giving him apple juice anymore and pineapple juice because he wants apple juice again. So you know, you think by yourself, he’s got an issue about what kind of juice you are giving him, and we’ve got an issue of how are we getting him out of the building? And that makes you feel better because you know that person has got the situation under control there. So, that’s the kind of things that you remember, you know. And I cannot even remember what day it was. The second big earthquake. Early in the morning. Where you really see what the earthquake is doing when you are more alert to it. And everything, it’s like it’s happening to you all over again. I would say, and I have been speaking to a lot of people about this, the difficult times is  the quiet times and the times you speak to your family. That’s the difficult times for people. And to be alone. You don’t want to be alone. But as long as you work, and you keep yourself busy, you don’t think back, to where you don’t want to go, because you don’t want to go back. I believe most if not everybody had a complete change on that day. Our lives changed permanently on that day. It’s something that you experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

 

01:39:00

YOU MENTIONED SOMETHING TO ME BEFORE ABOUT, THERE WERE FAMILY MEMBERS OF PEOPLE ON THE SIDE LINES. WHAT WERE THEY. THERE MUST HAVE BEEN SOME PEOPLE THERE FOR DAYS.

 

Yeah. We had family members being there the whole time and it was difficult to remove them from the site because nr 1 where do you go with them? The system was not really that in place at that point in time. We were in crisis mode and the interesting is, one would be extremely emotional, while the other one would be extremely angry. Angry for us, not succeeding. And some people is critical about that. I am not critical about that, I understand their feelings. And I don’t have any feelings towards the person that is saying to you, “why don’t you save my husband? Why don’t you save my wife? You can do better! Go in! Go and take him out! Go in and take her out! You are not doing enough!” It’s a very emotional time for them. It’s a colleague it’s a friend versus a husband and a wife. So the feelings are differently. To them, to deal with people like that was a difficult time. It’s difficult to deal with them in the sense that you understand what they are feeling. You know why they feel the way they feel. But you can’t do nothing more. We had enormous amount of search and rescue teams on the site, but keep in mind, where a lot of people do not understand the mandate of search and rescue teams. They arrived in this country forHaiti, not for MINUSTAH. They arrived for all the people in this country. So, they arrive at Christopher, they do a search in the building, once they have completed the search and they say “our dogs and our equipment cannot pick up any survivors.” They leave and they go to the next building to look for survivors, because their mandate is ‘survivors’ not body recovering. We have a different mandate. We were there to do search and rescue and recovering. In that regard the group that were absolutely amazing. Were the Brazilian engineers that stationed here. They stayed with us the whole time. But once again, they have a different mandate. It’s not a search and rescue team coming into the country. They are part of the MINUSTAH family, they are there to assist us. So they stayed the whole time with us, while we had a huge amount of international teams coming in, staying there for half a day, a day. Then they decide there is a lot of people still trapped in this country that need our assistance. There is hardly anything we can do here. We are going to move on to the next building. Which made our work much more difficult, but I also hadn’t a problem with that, because I understood why they are leaving us. They are leaving us for the better of the whole country and not specifically ‘we are here for MINUSTAH.’

 

01:43:04

Necklace 2, link to “firefighter” clip from around 00:01:23

I IMAGINE YOU HAVE YEARS OF EXPERIENCE IN THIS AREA AS A FIRE MARSHALL. WOULD YOU SAY THAT THIS SITUATION WAS UNIQUE OR DIFFERENT THAN ANYTHING ELSE BEFORE?

 

Well for a start, it’s the biggest disaster I have seen in my life. For that matter I honestly believe it’s the biggest natural in history if you look at the square kilometer. People compare this to the tsunami. The tsunami more or less had the same amount of victims, covering a few countries. Here we had everything situated in one. Yes it was different than any other thing I’ve done in my life, because in emergency services, in disaster management, you go and you assist other countries. You go and you assist other people. You go and you fight fires in other peoples places. You don’t go to your own. It was like going to my own family and that was the difficult part for me and for everybody. For everybody. Trying to do something for your friends. I said to somebody the other day that before the earthquake I had colleagues and I had friends, now I am part of a family, because we all became family and there was a bond. When you return from Christopher and your going to Log base, people that you normally just say “Hi” is hugging you. They are happy that you are alive. You are happy that they are alive. You see people in Christopher and you see the joy when they see this person is alive, that person is alive. So, you get close, you become a family. And that family feeling is unique. You don’t get the same experience. When you go out as an outsider to assist other people. If you look at our national staff, the people in this country, in the past, I was here to assist the national society to move forward. We’ve got a different feeling towards each other now. There is a bond. We went through the same experience. They lost, we lost, they suffered, we suffered. We get on our feet together, not alone. They know they cannot do it alone. We know we cannot do it alone.

 

So, that is the way that we get our strength. To say that we are going to move forward. We cannot forget but we cannot stand still. That’s my approach in trying to deal with what happened to us.

 

01:46:40

YOU TALKED ABOUT THE PEOPLE ON YOU TEAM, PEOPLE THAT WORKED WITH YOU AND FEELING A FAMILY AND ALSO THE KIND OF LACK OF MATERIALS SOMETIMES, EQUIPMENT. DO YOU FEEL THAT YOU WERE UNDEREQUIPED TO HANDEL THIS?

 

If you talk about whether we under-equipped or unprepared, if you look at any emergency response plan, we had everything in place when it comes to plan. To the plans. Half of our plan died. Half of our plan was destroyed. Half of their team leaders were killed. Half of the senior management was killed. So regardless what plan you had, the plan was incomplete all of the sudden. When you talk about equipment I always compare any major disaster to what happened to theUnited Statesin the Katrina Hurricane. The Katrina,Americaall of the sudden realized this is something so huge; we have a problem in cooping with it. So, if we talk about equipment, no country in the world will ever be prepared to deal with the scenario of this magnitude, because it was so massive, that nobody can even be prepared to deal with this. The best you can do is to improve your system. And we’ve got a lot of space for improvement. But, we were not prepared on that day for this size of event. We will never be fully prepared for an event of this size. Here ore anywhere else in the world, it’s just too big.

 

01:48:42

DO YOU HAVE ANY REGRETS WHEN YOU LOOK BACK?

 

If you look at the regrets, you ask yourself: was there anything we could have done more? Was there a possibility that we could have saved more?

 

I believe, history will judge us on that. You have people that is critical on the response, you’ve got people that have got their reservations but don’t say anything on this, people that turn around and say “you did a wonderful job”. I am not here to criticize any of the three. But yes, if you look at the whole scenario and you ask yourself: was there any regrets? The only thing I regret is that we couldn’t save more. But we couldn’t to more.

 

01:49:50

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THIS IS THE LAST QUESTION, WAS THERE EVER A MOMENT THAT YOU FELT A SENSE OF TRIOMPHE OR VICTORY THAT YOU WON? DID YOU HAD A MOMENT OF, A GOOD MOMENT?

 

If you look at the good moments, I honestly believe that the good moments is, we were able to save people and people came out of the building. That didn’t happen often. That were the special moments that will always stay with you. It’s very difficult to look for special moments in a positive sense. If I look back at what happened in the first month, we were dealing with death and destruction every single minute of the day and it was never ending. You sleep for two hours, when you wake up its like a never ending dream. So, yes, there was a few special moments. Looking at, what you find out later, your family support, your friends, people that care, people that come from nowhere, giving you water, giving you food without asking anything. So the goodwill of strangers, of volunteers that arrived, that shared everything with us, that goodwill you will never forget. They have done things nobody asked them. They were never paid for it. They never expected any payment in the first place. All they wanted to do is to make our life easier. That special moment in looking at the goodwill of people, that moment is too many, it’s a place I don’t want to go back to. I’ve been to that facility last Sunday and I’ve said my final goodbyes to that building, I don’t want to go back there.

 

01:52:58

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE THAT I SHOULD HAVE ASKED YOU THAT I DIDN’T?

 

Nothing. Thanks a lot.

01:53:17

Necklace 3

HOW DO YOU COPE?

 

Sometimes it’s difficult. Very difficult sometimes. You, you know, while we are speaking, I’m not going there. And all of the sudden I’m going there, and I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to be in that place.