Task Force Spearheads El Salvadoran Relief
By Spc. Jeremy Heckler, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
ILOPANGO AIR BASE, El Salvador, Jan. 25, 2001 Salvadoran Army Sgt. Wilfredo Dulces Ramirez and Cpl. Aludes Ramirez Dulces spent three days wondering whether their loved ones in Comasagua were still alive. It was hard to concentrate on their duties here, they said, when life hung in the balance.
Roads leading into the village were covered in a landslide. Relief efforts from Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, led the way in helping the Salvadoran soldiers find their way home when they entered Comasagua on a supply mission.
Crew chief Sgt. Robert Harper (right) of Joint Task Force-Bravo tries to brief an El Salvadoran soldier while a helicopter whips up a duststorm on a makeshift landing zone. Harper, of Company B, 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment, took part in U.S. relief efforts in El Salvador following a major Jan. 13 earthquake that killed hundreds and left an estimated million people homeless.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The task force responded to relief and assessment requests following an earthquake off the west coast of El Salvador, some 65 miles southwest of San Miguel. The temblor registered 7.6 on the Richter scale. Forty-six task force members arrived Jan. 15 by helicopter, two CH-47 Chinooks and three UH-60 Black Hawks.
“Our initial focus was to bring immediate assistance to the citizens and provide a country team to assess the damage,” said Col. Michael Wood, JTF-Bravo commander, who likened the situation to a paramedic unit stabilizing the patient before receiving long-term care. That support came in the form of the aircraft and crews of 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment.
“Our two Chinooks and three Black Hawks bring a heavy-lift capability that no one else can,” Wood said.
Pilots had to use all their skills to airlift supplies. In Comasagua, the only "landing zone" available for CH-47 Chinook pilots was a dusty soccer field. As they approached the field, the sky around them turned into a dark shade of brown as dust whirled around the aircraft.
“In a lot of these fields, you have a dusty landing, and once you hit 20 feet you lose all reference. You have to depend on the people in the back to keep it level until you find some rock on the ground to tell you how close you are to landing,” said Chief Warrant Officer John Hager, a pilot with the battalion's Company B.
Unlike other brownout landings, he said, pilots couldn't move ahead of the dust at Comasagua but had to come to a dead stop and raise the nose of the aircraft to avoid obstacles around the field, such as power lines, steep hills and a goalpost.
The efforts of the Chinook and Black Hawk crews threw a life preserver to the people of El Salvador. They delivered 157.8 tons of food, ferried 560 relief workers and soldiers, and reunited families in the towns of Comasagua, Talinque, San Vincente, Chiltiuapa, Tacuba and Tamanque.
“It was very comforting to see that we were helping these people out in their time of need,” said Sgt. Robert Harper, a Company B flight engineer. He said the Salvadorans had no hospitals or any way to get help. “They were really in a critical state, and they needed to get aid quickly in the first days following the earthquake.”
After the initial relief efforts, JTF-Bravo assessment teams arrived to determine the long-term needs of El Salvador. Engineering teams, for instance, analyzed the structural integrity of buildings throughout the country.
“Our engineering teams covered key parts of the country and provided technical assistance, saving a lot time and effort,” Wood said.
“Our job was to identify the hardest hit areas,” said Capt. Jennifer Newhouse, JTF-Bravo engineering team chief. “We found areas of the Pan American Highway and the cities of Usulatan and Santa Tecla destroyed by landslides.” She saw firsthand many of the effects of the earthquake on the people of El Salvador.
“Santa Tecla was the most unsettling to me. The town was completely devastated by a landslide, and as I walked through I saw people digging bodies out of the ground,” Newhouse said.
In one area they assessed, engineering team members inspected damage to buildings constructed by a New Horizons mission to the country.
“In Chilaquera, we landed to inspect New Horizons projects and found they had survived the earthquake rather well,” Newhouse said. “As we walked through the town, villagers came up to us and expressed their gratitude.”
She added that groups of El Salvadorans in another area met them at the landing site and walked with them to the city and back -- a four-mile journey.
Another crew conducted an equally important task, ferrying U.S. and Salvadoran geologists and scientists to the Santa Ana volcano. The team evaluated the effects of the earthquake on the simmering volcano in order to avert an even greater tragedy. The aircrew descended to 2,000 feet above the rim of the volcano, giving the geologists a bird's-eye view. Afterward, the scientists decided the volcano posed no imminent danger, as had been feared.
“I wasn’t too worried about the volcano erupting, but I did worry about those living around the volcano,” said Chief Warrant Officer Dat Nguyen, a Company A pilot.
A three-person medical team from the task force’s medical element arrived at Ilopango to assess the conditions of El Salvador’s hospitals.
A UH-60 Black Hawk from U.S. Army Air Ambulance Detachment at Soto Cano flew an unscheduled evacuation mission from Talinque after a supply drop. Advised that a Salvadoran patient at a local clinic need a lift, a member of the medical team examined her and diagnosed her condition as appendicitis. The aircrew evacuated her to a military hospital in San Salvador.
“I’m glad that we could be there, because right now most of those people in the mountains don’t have a way to let people know they are hurt,” said Sgt. John Collins, a flight medic. "If we hadn’t been there, she could have died, because the facility lacked the equipment and the specialist required to treat her."
The members of Joint Task Force-Bravo returned to Soto Cano with smiles on their faces, knowing they had reunited families and helped the citizens of El Salvador get back on their feet.
(Army Spc. Jeremy Heckler is assigned to the Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs Office at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras.)