Springhiller shares harrowing experiences flying aid in and out of devastated nation
Victims of the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti await takeoff with the Canadian Forces 429 Transport Squadron in a CC-177 Globemaster III. The newly acquired aircraft are capable of carrying 164900 Lbs of freight or 102 people and are normally used in combat zones but have been pressed into service of the Haitian aid mission. Courtesy of Combat Camera - Department of National Defence
SPRINGHILL - The terror and tragedy of the Haitian earthquake is horrific and unimaginable, says a soldier aiding the devastated nation and helping to remove victims from the Jan. 12 natural disaster.
"One lady surviving under her desk was eating what was in her wastebasket while her dead co-worker lay crushed just feet from her," said Springhill native Richard Lees. "The group of high school kids from Ontario and B.C. who at a very young age have experienced things they should not have experienced ever."
Lees, the youngest of four siblings who grew up on Springhill's Herrett Road, is a loadmaster with Canada's 429 Transport Squadron. His mission in Haiti couldn't be more different than his recent work in Afghanistan.
"Instead of tanks we take hospital supplies. Instead of bullets and bombs we take food and water. Rather than hardened combat troops we are taking doctors and nurses in and Canadian Citizens out."
In an emailed letter to our newsroom, Lees said the demands of such a mission are difficult to cope with.
"We fly from Trenton, Ontario, where I am based, into Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Its only a four and a half hour flight there, but we are never too sure on how long we are going to have to circle in a holding pattern, waiting our turn to go to this very busy little airport or wait on the ground to get unloaded."
When the Canadian squadron was finally able to land with its first load, it faced another daunting problem -50,000 pounds of freight and no way to unload it.
"With a little - OK, a lot - of help from the 100 passengers we brought down, the freight was unloaded by hand."
The Canadian Embassy brought the crew 65 passengers to take back to Montreal.
"Each one has a story. Sure they were all happy to get on the flight but then again their eyes told me they have seen too much," Lees said.
Even after leaving the devastated Caribbean country the crew's troubles were far from over.
"Two hours into the flight we have a problem," Lees said. "One of the passengers is convulsing … We get her hooked up to and IV and her vitals aren't looking good."
The aircraft diverts to Charleston, South Carolina.
"Her husband, with tears in his eyes, is at a loss. He asks, 'Where are we? Am I supposed to live here now? What am I to do? I have no money no passport nothing. Are you abandoning me here I thought we were going to Montreal?'
"I feel for the guy. Here is a man who just lost everything and now he is not going to Montreal, not going to be with family there. He has no money, no clothes, his wife is going to hospital. Are we just going to drop him off and leave him? The flight nurse feels that she should stay with him. So she grabs her gear and stays in Charleston."
After 24 hours rest back in Canada, Lees received a call Sunday to ship out again. This time with 85,000 pounds of supplies.
"Things are more organized there today and we have a scheduled slot time. There is no forklift yet but there are other pieces of equipment that can off load us so at least we don't have to do it by hand."
With their cargo bay empty the crew prepares to return to Canada but they will not be going empty-handed.
"The embassy asks us how many people we can take," Lees said. "We go over our manuals and we decide we can take over 200 hundred.
"Over 200 people in a plane designed for 102 how do we do it? It's very simple. Take out all the seats and use cargo straps and strap people to the floor."
If only it were that simple.
"Then we find out there are up to seven stretcher cases to take."
It's a good thing the cavernous CC-177 Globemaster III is versatile.
"In minutes we set to work and turn the cargo bay into a mini flying hospital … Total count 183 people. Old and young people who didn't have a scratch, people in bandages. One old lady whose legs were being splinted together with cardboard boxes was crying and pleading for me to get her a pillow to lay under her hips.
Lees said loading a mass of people into a cargo plane on a cold metal floor is no easy task.
"On the best of days I would have people talking back and asking if I was serious or not. But when it came to these people there wasn't a peep of resistance. They were tired and beaten, most of them just wanted out."
On Wednesday, eight days after the initial magnitude-7 disaster, reports from Haiti said a magnitude 6.1 earthquake sent frightened survivors screaming into the streets. The extent of the additional damage is not yet known.