MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. – U.S. physicians and a rescue crew trained to search for survivors amid the wreckage of terrorist attacks and natural disasters are headed to Iran to help in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake.
The 73 members of Virginia Task Force One (search) left late Saturday afternoon from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, but their plane returned about an hour later after smoke was detected in the cargo area.
The task force members were moved to a different plane, according to Portia Palmer, spokeswoman for the U.S. Agency for International Development (search), which is leading the mission. The team finally got off the ground at 12:45 a.m. Sunday.
Sixty doctors and other medical experts from the Boston area, known as the International Medical Surgical Response Team (search), departed Saturday from Westover Joint Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass. They were scheduled to arrive in Iran on Sunday.
The 71-member California Task Force Two (search), comprised primarily of Los Angeles County firefighters, had been set to leave as well but was placed on 24-hour standby, said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Carlos Arispe.
National Security Council officials decided to delay the flight after Iranian officials said they did not need additional rescue assistance, said Los Angeles County fire Battalion Chief Terry DeJournett.
The California team included hazardous materials experts, paramedics, five search and rescue dogs and their handlers, and one medical doctor, said Los Angeles County fire Capt. Gil Sanchez.
Members of the team, one of only two in the United States to win a contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide overseas disaster assistance, had spent six weeks in training to qualify for membership.
"They were really psyched about going. When you train for a mission or a skill, even if you don't wish harm on anyone, you're anxious to apply that skill," said Los Angeles County fire Battalion Chief John Tripp. "We fought hard to get this."
The magnitude 6.5 earthquake hit early Friday just outside the ancient Iranian city of Bam. Tens of thousands of people were feared dead in the rubble of homes and buildings, most constructed with unreinforced mud brick.
"What we're trying to do is find people alive and pull them to safety," said Dan Schmidt, spokesman for Virginia Task Force One. "We've got equipment that will help us listen for people and also be able to see people once we're able to get equipment into spots."
The U.S. search-and-rescue teams' equipment includes special cameras that can fit in tight crevices to search for survivors. Several local fire departments also volunteered search dogs for the effort, officials said.
The medical team, last deployed overseas a year ago following a typhoon in Guam, is prepared to set up and operate an entirely self-sufficient field hospital for the next three weeks, said Dr. Susan Briggs, the team's chief medical officer and the trauma director at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"I am optimistic we will be able to make a contribution," Briggs said Saturday. "There are a number of people who did not feel comfortable because of the political situation, but we hope we will be a good representative of the U.S. and hope to give the Iranian people the best without political constraints."
Virginia Task Force One, based in Fairfax County, has helped earthquake victims in Turkey, Taiwan, Kenya, Mexico and Armenia, and its members assisted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
The California team, based in Los Angeles, also helped search for survivors in the wreckage of the Pentagon and World Trade Center in 2001, and responded to the 1994 Northridge earthquake and 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The Iran earthquake was to be its first overseas assignment, said Inspector Roland Sprewell of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
The two groups are among only three urban search-and-rescue task forces in the United States that are trained and certified for overseas disaster deployment. The other is in Florida.