Los Angeles County Firefighter Specialist Anthony Ramirez — better known by his middle name, Pete — returned to work Saturday at Fire Station 82 in La Cañada Flintridge after taking part last week in search-and-rescue missions along the tsunami-devastated coastline of Japan.
Ramirez is a member of the elite California Task Force 2, one of only two wholly self-sufficient international disaster response teams in the country. The 74-member team of firefighters, doctors, paramedics, engineers, logisticians, hazmat technicians and other specialists carries tens of thousands of pounds of rescue and survival gear.
Ramirez, 42, and other team members spent six frigid days digging through rubble in Ofunato and Kamaishi City areas of Japan, an area about 300 miles north of Tokyo that was one of the hardest hit by the deadly tsunami along the island nation’s Eastern seaboard.
Like many of those only seeing pictures of Japan’s devastation from halfway around the world,
Ramirez, who last year took part in CTF 2’s response to the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, was awestruck by signs of the massive wave’s deadly force.
One surreal moment included standing next to a large fishing vessel that had been tossed like a toy three-quarters of a mile inland — up a 30-foot grade — from Ofunato harbor.
“It was very strange, knowing how much power it took and how crazy it was for the boat to get up there,” said Ramirez, an Upland resident and father of two who has been a firefighter for nine years. “Housed floated away. Cars were on top of houses.”
CTF 2, its sister American task force from Fairfax, Va., and a British rescue team set up camp at an elementary school and worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day excavating layers of buildings and using high-tech cameras with two-way audio capability in the hopes of finding survivors in the rubble.
Despite these efforts, the teams were unable to find any survivors, but located the remains of six people. Ramirez, who will retire next month from the U.S. Army Reserves, attributed the limited number of victims in that area to residents’ quick response to tsunami alerts.
“The Japanese have a tsunami warning system and the people heeded it. That says volumes about the Japanese people. Everyone took to the hills,” said Ramirez.
In Haiti, the team rescued several people but survival rates appeared much lower, he said.
Estimates of as many as 18,000 dead, Ramirez said, “is a horrible number in itself, but we’re talking about the country’s whole eastern seaboard. It’s not a big number compared to the [extent of the] destruction. There were 30,000 people or more just in Ofunato. If there was no early warning system, we could have surpassed that number just in one city.”
While there’s no early warning system for earthquakes, Ramirez urged Californians to plan as thoroughly as possible for any kind of disasters that could wipe out infrastructure.
“They say we’re expecting the Big One. The message, I guess, would be preparedness — being prepared to sustain yourself and your family with food and water for seven days before search and rescue shows up. Some say three or four days, but for me and my family it’s seven,” he said.
In addition to breaking down and excavating collapsed structures in Japan, Ramirez served as one of his team’s communications specialists, setting up satellite links to commands in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He is also trained to operate infrared search cameras on lines that can extend deep into pockets of rubble and even enable two-way voice communication.
Team members worked in freezing temperatures and frequent snowfall. Without access to electricity, they used generators to power small heaters to warm their sleeping quarters in the school’s gym.
Civilians also faced fuel rationing and were barred from traveling highways in the area, one where native resources were spread especially thin, said Ramirez.
The risk of nuclear radiation exposure also complicated rescue efforts. While the team worked some 150 miles north of damaged nuclear facilities, they carried dosimeters to monitor radiation levels and received frequent updates from commanders as well as a pair of television news reporters who were imbedded with the group. Drivers remained on standby to evacuate the group if necessary, he said.
Despite the unpleasant and dangerous conditions of his work and being witness to such widespread human trauma, Ramirez has few hesitations about heading out on the next mission.
“It’s just the idea of going out and helping people in a natural disaster. That’s a pretty good feeling,” he said. “We’re not just representing our department and our cities, but our country. Being a military man, to still be able to serve in this aspect is pretty awesome.”