Canine team returns home after deployment

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Los Angeles County Fire Captain Ron Horetski and his search dog, Pearl, take a break during their search and rescue mission in Kathmandu, Nepal, following the 7.8 earthquake that rocked that nation on April 25. The canine team is a member of the Urban Search and Rescue California Task Force 2 (CA-TF2) that deployed with America's Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART). Photos provided by Ron Horetski

Los Angeles County Fire Captain Ron Horetski and his search dog, Pearl, take a break during their search and rescue mission in Kathmandu, Nepal, following the 7.8 earthquake that rocked that nation on April 25. The canine team is a member of the Urban Search and Rescue California Task Force 2 (CA-TF2) that deployed with America’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART). Photos provided by Ron Horetski

Fire Captain Ron Horetski and his black Labrador Pearl returned home from a search and rescue mission in Kathmandu, Nepal several weeks ago; but a side note to their story provides a helpful reminder for pet owners on this 4th of July weekend.

In spite of extensive training and some harrowing searches in third-world countries, Pearl still was frightened by fireworks two years ago and managed to escape from her fenced backyard in Canyon Lake. Ron quickly enlisted the help of police, Community Patrol and Facebook friends to search for her – and there was a happy ending. But her one-and-a-half-hour absence did give Ron a scare.

Like other canines in the Urban Search and Rescue California Task Force 2, or CA-TF2, Pearl was trained by the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, based in Central California. She passed her FEMA test in May 2009. Ron is her handler and, when she is retired from service in two years, he will become her permanent owner.

Search dogs can smell live humans trapped three to ten feet under rubble and are trained to bark when they find someone. According to Ron, this becomes known as an “area of interest” and marked with GPS coordinates. The coordinates are relayed to base operations, which results in the deployment of a search and rescue team with special equipment. Ron says if he sees or hears a victim, he will start digging himself until the team arrives.

In spite of damages to a number of buildings like that at right, Ron says he was surprised to see businesses up and running again within 24 to 48 hours after the earthquake.

In spite of damages to a number of buildings like that at right, Ron says he was surprised to see businesses up and running again within 24 to 48 hours after the earthquake.

The Friday Flyer featured Ron and Pearl on previous deployments to Haiti and Japan following major earthquakes. A 7.0 earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and destroyed Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 12, 2010. Ron says it was the worst devastation he has ever seen.

In March 2011, following a 9.0 earthquake in Japan, CA-TF2 was called upon to search the the tsunami-ravaged coastlines of Ofunato and Kamaishi, where, unlike earthquake damage in Haiti, many buildings were so compressed by the action of the giant waves there were few voids left where humans could survive.

Another Canyon Lake resident, Lewis Francescon, is a member of CA-TF2 and was deployed to both of the above disasters. Lewis is a paramedic trained to reach and provide medical assistance to survivors trapped in confined spaces. He’s also a hazardous materials specialist and was wearing a radiation detector while the team was in Japan. Lewis was not part of the team deployed to Nepal after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked that country this past April 25.

In spite of damages to a number of buildings, Ron says he was surprised to see businesses up and running again within 24 to 48 hours after the earthquake.

In spite of damages to a number of buildings, Ron says he was surprised to see businesses up and running again within 24 to 48 hours after the earthquake.

Ron and Pearl were at Los Angeles County Fire Station 70 in Malibu (where Ron has been stationed the past two years) when he got the call at 3 a.m. to report for duty with Task Force 2 as part of the nation’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), deployed at the request of the Nepali government by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.

After arriving at the team’s facility in Pacoima, the 57 members and six canines were bused to March Air Reserve Base in Moreno Valley. After four layovers and 31 hours, USAR Task Force 2 met USAR Task Force 1 (out of Virginia) in Nepal, where they set up their base of operations in tents on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu.

The Nepali government gave the search teams maps of the city showing the grids that needed to be searched. Ron and Pearl were members of one of four canine teams that did what is known as “quick searches” with cameras and noise sensors. The area they searched consisted of what Ron called “mom and pop businesses” in the old part of town where some buildings remained standing, while others were collapsed into piles of rubble.

The U.S. searchers did not come across any trapped persons; however, they did assist the Nepali police/military in the rescue of a 15-year-old boy trapped in rubble.

Ron was impressed by how quickly the local business owners got themselves up and running – within 24 to 48 hours. He learned most of the damages were in outlying villages, but the team did not have vehicles to reach them. The area where help was most needed was near the Chinese border; however, the Chinese government forbade the U.S. team from going anywhere near its border, according to Ron.

The U.S. rescuers were saddened to hear about the six U.S. Marines and two Nepali soldiers who died on May 12 when their Camp Pendleton-based UH-1Y helicopter crashed in mountainous terrain during a humanitarian mission to remote villages. Ron says he and others had spoken with the Marines just before they took off.

He learned that one of those who lost his life in the crash was Sgt. Eric Seaman, whose wife’s parents live in Canyon Lake. Eric’s wife and children live in Murrieta.

May 12 also was the day the U.S. Search and Rescue team members were preparing to leave Nepal. Their equipment was packed and waiting at the airport, and members of the team were spending their last day walking around Kathmandu, when a magnitude 7.3 aftershock changed their plans.

Ron says he and three other team members were in a coffee shop on the second floor of a downtown building when the quake started. “It felt like someone picked up the building and began shaking it.” They raced outside to the middle of the street, checked with the locals to make sure no one was hurt, then responded to a radio call for a personnel accountability report (PAR).

The team ended up staying a couple more days to continue search and rescue in their assigned areas, then began heading home. Because the U.S. military planes were involved in humanitarian missions after the second earthquake, team members had to book flights back to Los Angeles on commercial flights.

For the canine teams, the attempt to get home with their dogs “was a nightmare,” says Ron. They finally found a flight that would accept their dogs; but when it had a 12-hour layover in Bangkok, the handlers spent hours negotiating with airline officials to let them walk their dogs and give them water.

To do so, they were restricted to the luggage area. To take the dogs anywhere else would mean they were “entering the country,” which required a 30-day quarantine. Ron says he and the other handlers had resigned themselves to staying with their dogs in Bangkok for 30 days if necessary. Fortunately, it wasn’t.

After another stop in Japan, the group finally made it back to LA on May 16. At 21 days, it was the team’s longest deployment ever.

Ron says Pearl is due to retire in two years at the age of 11. He expects to retire in four years after serving with the LA County Fire Department for 32 years.

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Sharon Rice