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From the Rubble: A Mission to Save Lives

VATFI training in Los Angeles 2 (Photo: Tim Barber/ABC7)

OUT OF THE RUBBLE

During major national and international disasters, a group of Fairfax County first responders rushes towards the danger.

"Save people. That is our main goal. Rescue," said team member Raul Perla.

The team’s name on domestic missions is Virginia Task Force One, but when members are dispatched around the world, they become USA One.

"You're representing your country, your state, your fire department, your county, your family," said safety officer Mike Davis.

Most of the 200 people on the team are the same men and women who respond to fires, crashes and other emergencies on the streets of Fairfax County.

"I get to work alongside the best people with the best equipment," said rescue specialist Eric Wyatt.

THE DISASTERS

From Hurricane Katrina, to the Japanese Tsunami, to the Earthquake in Haiti—the task force has been there for them all.

"Haiti was the most memorable because it was just so extreme in every way,” said K9 search specialist Teresa Macpherson.

"We were the first international search and rescue team on the ground. And we made a lot of rescues,” said task force member Matt Burns.

The team was in Haiti for roughly 16 days and rescued more than two dozen people. Most of the group’s rescues were in the first week from three search sites.

More than 220,000 people were killed by the earthquake, including 122 Americans.

"When I stood there looking at my first search site, I just thought all we ready for this? Are we prepared for this,” said Macpherson.

THE BEGINNING

Virginia Task Force One started after the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake. The federal government needed teams that could work quickly and effectively with countries around the world.

"The stakes are very high. And we need to get to this person as soon as possible," said logistics manager Bruce Neuhaus.

Since the 1980s, the group of local first responders, engineers, doctors, and other specialists have been dispatched to dozens of disasters around the globe.

While the local heroes are away on missions, the federal government pays other Fairfax County first responders overtime to cover shifts.

"It's a team effort and everybody has to do their job,” said Neuhaus.

The federal government spends roughly a million dollars a year to support the team. That does not include the cost of missions, which vary depending on where they are and how long the team will be away. Domestically, FEMA projects an average cost of $1.5 million for a 14 day deployment taking 80 people and equipment. International trips can cost millions more.

But funding does not just come from the federal government. It also comes from donations.

UNDER THE RUBBLE

Survivors like Dan Woolley believe the task force is worth every penny.

"I know what it feels like to be waiting and hoping that there is someone out there who can help you and who can rescue you," said Wooley.

In 2010, Woolley was trapped under a six-story hotel with only days to live.

"At first, I wondered if I was dead. It was absolutely terrifying," said Woolley.

Wooley was working for the non-profit Compassion International on January 12 of that year when a 7.0 earthquake ravaged Haiti.

"I heard and felt what sounded like explosions,” said Woolley. "I felt the floor shaking underneath me."

He was walking through the lobby of the Hotel Montana when the concrete walls started to ripple.

"I quickly looked for some place safe. You know, a table to get under, a door frame or something, but there was no safe place to run to,” said Woolley. "I was walking with my colleague and I never saw him again."

Nearly 200 other hotel guests were also killed. Woolley only heard voices of other people who were trapped, so he started writing a letter to his family.

Then, after two days at the bottom of an elevator shaft without food or water, Woolley heard the voices of Virginia Task Force One/USA 1.

"That was the first moment I really had that hope that I am not just stuck here-- that this isn't the way my story ends," said Woolley.

Then task force member Sam Gray propelled down the elevator shaft.

After six hours of work, Gray and the rest of the team pulled Woolley out of the rubble.

"Once he got me strapped in and he started pulling me out, all of a sudden there are five or six guys up above me and I realized, ‘Wow, you know, there is a whole team of people that is here just for me," said Woolley.

THE FUTURE OF THE TASK FORCE

Six months after the earthquake, Woolley flew to Virginia to meet his heroes.

"How do you begin to thank them," asked ABC7 News’ Tim Barber

"You know, I haven't figured out how to thank them except to do it," replied Woolley.

For Virginia Task Force One, saving lives is just part of the job.

"When they finally pull that person out, and they're smiling-- that's why you do what you do," said Teresa Macpherson.

But there has been a change of tone in the United States, with an emphasis on putting America first and reigning in the budget. The changes have affected agencies across the federal government, but so far the task force has not been touched.

"Why should this group stick around," asked Barber.

"We can take a group of 60, 80, 100 people and a cash of equipment and go out and truly help people,” said Eric Wyatt.

The group is not just about saving lives. It also represents the United States with USAID, providing humanitarian aid and training around the globe.

"We put up tents at hospitals for kids. And we hand out supplies,” said Wyatt.

"It's not always about the lives that you saved, it's about what we are doing for the affected country," said Neuhaus.

The members show no signs of slowing down—and that’s just fine with survivors like Woolley.

"If it wasn't for Virginia Task Force One-- do you think you would be alive,” asked Barber.

"I am quite sure that if they had not come and rescued me that I would not be alive," replied Woolley.

Dan Woolley has a lot more on his story and book at his website: http://danwoolley.net/

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