PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Fifteen Hill Air Force Base reservists landed at the chaotic Port-au-Prince Airport on Friday evening with a singular mission: to make order out of chaos.
Members of the 419th Fighter Wing's 67th Aerial Port Squadron are experts at organizing airports. And the one in this earthquake-ravaged country has been anything but since Jan. 12.
The reservists found a half dozen jumbo jets lined up outside the empty terminal, while about the same number of helicopters dotted the grass infield along the runway. Cars, military trucks and people on foot traversed the tarmac between planes.
The air traffic control center was empty. Air Force personnel guide aircraft from the infield. Large tents crammed with metal folding chairs serve as a processing center for people leaving the country. The smell of acrid smoke from a fire in the city center wafted over the airport.
"We're going to get the airfield operational," said Tech Sgt. Candace Arbogast, a six-year Air Force veteran who recently earned a master's degree in social work at the University of Utah.
That means establishing a forward operating base, or FOB, where airplanes like their C-17 carrying relief supplies will be directed for orderly unloading as air traffic ramps up to help Haitians still in dire need. The squadron also will assist with the transport of Americans, and possibly injured Haitian refugees and children to the United States.
"If it goes on or off that plane, we'll be doing it, whether it's passengers, supplies or vehicles," Arbogast said.
Since the start of the Haiti Flight Operations Coordination Center, safe arrival capacity has increased to 145 per day, the Air Force said.
The 67th squadron Friday unloaded a monstrous pallet hauler and a hulking forklift along with plastic crates packed with tents from their C-17 as darkness settled over the stricken city.
Members of a Florida-based medical team made their way though the processing tents for a flight to Orlando, among them registered nurse Rachelle Augustin, who lamented the lack of medical supplies.
"We lost a baby today because we didn't have a crash cart," Augustin said. "She died for no reason."
The Hill squadron will spend the next six weeks in the sticky Haitian heat and humidity helping people like Augustin go home and unloading planes laden with gear before another group is rotated in. This is the 419th Fighter Wing's first deployment to Haiti since the earthquake.
Some 100 million pounds of supplies have poured into Haiti the past eight days, said Capt. Dustin Doyle, Air Force spokesman. They can now expect much more. The 67th squadron will help get the supplies to a cargo yard to distribute to the city center quickly.
"These porters from Hill are going to make a huge impact on that," he said.
Some squadron members recently returned from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, areas where violence is wrought by humans rather than the heaving earth. Having endured those war zones, none was too concerned about another earthquake or aftershock in the Caribbean.
"As long as I don't fall into a big sinkhole, I'm all right," said Sgt. Kenneth Wilson, a 22-year Air Force veteran who spent about four months in Iraq last year, returning home in August. About five months later, he volunteered for the 45-day mission to Haiti as did each of the 15 Utah reservists.
"I looked at it as a way of helping other people," Wilson said.
His wife's parents are on an LDS Church mission in New Jersey, where several Haitians are in their branch. "And that kind of hit home, too," he said.34 comments on this story
In addition to the military-issue supplies and heavy equipment, the squadron delivered items of a more personal touch.
Wilson and his wife Lisa collected pain relievers, first-aid kits and gauze from doctors near their Brigham City home. Others gathered baby formula, toothbrushes and toothpaste in the area around Hill.
"It's just such a crisis," Arbogast said. "They need (aid) now."