Springhills Richard Lees (centre, carrying stretcher) and the Canadian Forces are transporting emergency supplies to Haiti and coming back to Canada with survivors of that nations 7.0 magnitude earthquake. (Photo courtesy of the Department of National Defence)
From Richard Lees
Special to The Record
Good day. Well, by now you have all read about the earthquake in Haiti. Reading about it or seeing it in the news is one thing but I get to experience a part of it first hand.
I am a loadmaster with 429 Transport Squadron flying the CC-177 Globemaster III aircraft. These newly acquired workhorses are capable of carrying 164900 Lbs of freight or 102 people into combat zones around the world. We can take anything from tanks to helicopters and I have been doing that in Afghanistan and around the world for the past two years.
When the earthquake hit in Haiti the Canadian government stepped to the plate offering aid in any way possible and being the heavy lifters of the air force means our job remains the same but the nature of our cargo changes. 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.
My days last roughly 20-26 hours. 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 this very busy little airport or wait on the ground to get unloaded.
On the first night the airspace over Port Au Prince was crazy to say the least. There seemed to be planes everywhere, almost like someone had disturbed a bee's nest. We were so afraid of hitting another airplane or having another one hitting us that we turned on every single light we had to show everyone that yes we are here don't bump into us.
When we finally landed we had another problem onboard I had over 50 thousand pounds of freight with no way to unload it. A few ideas were passed around and 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 us 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. I talked to one lady who was buried under the rubble for 24 hours and was going back wearing nothing but a par of shorts and a tank top. Another passenger gave her a pair of pants. One more got her some socks. The flight nurse gave her a t-shirt and I gave her a jacket. Most of them are coming out with only the clothes on their backs and for someone with nothing to give someone with less a pair of pants is pretty heart wrenching.
Two hours into the flight we have a problem. One of the passengers is convulsing. The flight nurse goes into action. I get a stretcher and help out where I can. We get her hooked up to and IV and her vitals aren't looking good. I tell the Aircraft Captain we need to land now. We divert into Charleston South Carolina. We land and there is and ambulance waiting. The Lady and her husband are taken to it.
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.
Finally we are on our way again. It has been 20 hours since we started our day. Two more hours of flight time and we can get to Montreal where there is a fresh crew waiting for us. They can take the plane and fly us home and we can sleep in our own beds.
Landing in Montreal and the Red Cross is waiting. There are ambulances abound. Thankfully we don't need them. The other crew comes in we give a handover brief and I fall asleep immediately only to wake up in Trenton shortly afterwards.
I go home for 24 hours of rest and Sunday afternoon I get a call. I have 45 minutes to get to work and prepare another jet to take down to Port Au Prince. Our Load this time is 85 thousand pounds of supplies. We need to get organized and take off on time. Things are more organised there today and we have a scheduled slot time. We take off on time and make it into the airport with no real problems. 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.
The embassy asks us how many people we can take. We go over our manuals and we decide we can take over 200 hundred. Over two hundred 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.
Word goes out to the embassy and soon busses start to arrive. Then we find out there are up to 7 stretcher cases to take. Our plane is very versatile so we can take stretchers easily. In minutes we set to work and turn the cargo bay into a mini flying hospital. The room that isn't being used is jammed packed with people. 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 boxed was crying and pleading for me to get her a pillow to lay under her hips. It seems her pelvis was broken and the lack of medical supplies meant that she was treated with anything they had on hand. Hence the spring water and diaper boxes that were holding her legs in place. I quickly found a pillow for her.
Let me tell you about loading a mass of people into a cargo plane and telling them that they have to cram together and sit on a cold metal floor. 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. The horrors that they have seen; the stories they were telling me. Some of them reminiscent of the mine disasters of the 50's.
One lady surviving under her desk eating what was in her wastebasket while her dead co-worker lay crushed just feet from her. The police officers who had just lost a couple of colleagues. The group of high school kids from Ontario and BC who, at a very young age, have experienced things they should not have experienced ever. The stories they tell are all horrific.
Three hours after landing we finally get off the ground and thankfully this flight is uneventful. We fly the four and a half hours to Montreal. We feed and give the evacuees water. Give them the luxury of using a real bathroom. Once we land the Red Cross it there in force, handing out blankets. Taking care of the old and the wounded we off load our passengers, clean up the plane, take on some fuel and get ready to go home.
Landing in Trenton is great my bed is calling. I go over to work check the schedule and I am to rest for 24 hours and be ready to go back in on Wednesday.
As I write this I just get a call I am to show at work at 0445 for a 0715 take off.
Another long day ahead but its well worth it.
Richard Lees is the youngest of four brothers who grew up on the Herret Road in Springhill