Milwaukee firefighters Craig Parello, left and Jeff Lang, a former Wisconsin Badger football player, spent a week in Haiti assisting after the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the country. They were members of Team Rubicon, a small group that included three doctors. Parello, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish, Milwaukee, called the trip ‘life changing.’ (Submitted photo courtesy of Jake Wood)

He said it was “ironic.”

Craig Parello, a 35-year-old Milwaukee firefighter, sat through an eight-hour Power Point presentation, Monday, Jan. 11, viewing picture after picture of collapsed buildings during his Heavy Urban Rescue Team (HURT) training. On Tuesday, Jan. 12, he saw more, but these photos were broadcast on TV and showed the destruction caused by the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti.

Just four days later, the former Marine was on his way to Haiti with Team Rubicon, a small group formed to “bridge the gap between large natural disasters and conventional aid response,” ready to do whatever he could to help.

“I remember thinking that someone’s going to have to do a lot of the stuff – all the search and rescue that we’re learning this week – there,” said Parello, who belongs to Immaculate Conception Parish, Milwaukee. “I didn’t really see myself going (to Haiti) right away until my friend Jeff Lang started talking about it.”

Thursday afternoon, during breaks in their HURT training session, Lang, fellow firefighter and a co-founder of Team Rubicon, mentioned to Parello that he was thinking about going to Haiti, and explained how he and a college roommate were requesting donations through Facebook. By that night, the donations secured Lang’s trip to Haiti.

“When I talked to him about it he (said), ‘Why? Do you want to go?’”

Parello sent a quick text message to Steffanie, his wife of 12 years, asking how she’d feel if he went to Haiti for a week. After receiving “OK” in reply, Craig told Lang he would go. That night, Lang called, confirmed Parello’s spot and told him they were leaving Saturday morning.

At 3 a.m., Parello and his wife couldn’t sleep with all of the uncertainties about what the team would do, where they would stay and the type of security issues they would face.  “We talked about it all and she understood,” Parello said. “I told her, ‘I don’t know what it is inside of me – when I see something like this, I want to help. I feel like I should be there to help.’”

A teaching moment

And it didn’t matter what Parello would do when he got there.

“We consider ourselves jacks of all trades, but masters of none,” Parello said of the skills and talents he could offer as a firefighter. “Whatever I needed to do, I would do. I even told my wife, I said if it means me loading cases of water on a truck, I’m good at heavy lifting, I can do that – anything.”

Parello said it was difficult to tell his children, Dominic, 12, and Isabelle, who would turn 11 on Jan. 16, the day he was scheduled to leave for Haiti.

“I remember explaining to them that sometimes we who have so much here have to help those who have way less,” he said. “I explained that these are poor people – they didn’t have a lot to begin with. We have so much here and so much to be thankful for … and they understood.”

Parello had received immunizations when he joined the Marine Corps at age 17, and more when he was on the fire department’s standby team for Hurricane Katrina.

“As far as getting hurt, I just prayed that that wouldn’t happen, so, because there was really no coverage from the city here because we went on our own,” Parello said.

Arrangements were made with the directors of the HURT class, who dismissed the two men from what they would miss, and also with Michael Jones, acting chief for the Milwaukee Fire Department, who will allow the men to make up the missed workdays throughout the year.

Team Rubicon self-deploys

On Friday, Parello and his family celebrated Isabelle’s birthday and at 4 a.m. the next day, he kissed his kids goodbye and Steffanie drove him to the airport where he boarded his under two-hour flight to Atlanta and then the about three-hour flight to Santa Domingo where they would drive the remaining five hours to Haiti.

“We were concerned about everything – security, disease, everything that my wife had spoke about the night before,” Parello said, explaining that he and Lang used the buddy system the entire time. “We took measures. We wore gloves and masks. We both had long sleeves even though it was 90 plus degrees.”

On the flight, the four men who formed the “self-sustaining, self-reliant and self-deploying” Team Rubicon, as stated on its Web site, met three doctors who joined the cause. Upon their Sunday night arrival at the Jesuit novitiate where they would set up camp for the week and collaborate with the Jesuits, Parello and Lang did a structural analysis of the buildings.

“We deemed the buildings unsafe to stay in but for necessity they still had to use these buildings,” he said, adding that an 80-some-year-old brother refused to leave his room on the second floor, the same floor where the roughly 100,000-pound water tank that had fallen off its pillars on the roof was coming through the ceiling. “They were using the kitchen to cook, to make rice and beans or whatever they were making because they already had people staying on their complex.”

Fears dissolved as work began

As soon as they began to help people, Parello said fears dissolved.

“We got into Port-au-Prince on Sunday; Monday, we packed up and we went out to a refugee camp to render medical aid – as soon as we got there, I knew it was worth it,” he said of their all-day trip to Manresa, located in Port-au-Prince. “Supplies were limited. We had no anesthesia. We had limited antibiotics. The doctors, they were – everyone was doing just whatever we could to help.”

The conditions were what Parello called “primitive” for the people who had seen no medical attention since the earthquake struck almost a week before. After setting up a tarp with all of their supplies as their makeshift facility, the team went to work with the help of their translators – locals who spoke English and a Jesuit brother who spoke Creolean French.

“They would self-triage themselves and put whoever they thought was most severely injured to the front of the line. The first guy we saw had a gangrenous hand amputation and it just kind of went from there,” Parello said of the 250 to 300 people they treated that day, who sought medical attention for anything from fractures and lacerations to open wounds and “more gangrene than you can imagine.”

New injuries each day

Each day brought new injuries and another location where the team worked during the light hours and at night returned, for security reasons, to the novitiate by way of the local “tap-taps,” or taxi-like vehicles. On Tuesday, the team was moved to the emergency room at the general hospital in Port-au-Prince where Parello said it was “pretty much our team running the entire ER.”

“Jeff spoke to this woman that was there and she had been there for several days and she was just as tired as could be and he (said), ‘You need to rotate some staff in here because our team is going to go.’ And she looked at Jeff and she said, ‘There is nobody else. There is nobody else to take our place,’ which was very difficult to leave,” Parello said, though the group set a strict time each day to stop rendering aid or they would never leave.

When a 6.1 magnitude earthquake shook Parello awake Wednesday morning, he said it took him a half-second to realize what was happening.

“As you can imagine, the Haitian people are just deathly afraid when that ground moves now, so I heard some screaming and some ‘Oh God’s’ and this and that – that scared me more than anything.”

Wednesday was the most physically exhausting day because the earthquake’s aftershock meant evacuation of not only the novitiate buildings, but hundreds of patients at the general hospital to where the team returned to help carry them back in after Army Corps engineers inspected the buildings.

“We kind of all took turns picking each other up when we were tired,” he said, describing how even a half-hour could make a difference for the people despite the team’s exhaustion.

Team fills in gaps

For the first few days, Parello said organizations like the Red Cross were nowhere to be found, which made their work that much more important.

“Our mission statement is pretty much to bridge that gap from when the devastating natural act occurs to when the rest of the world shows up to help – that’s where we try to fill in and our team size was perfect because we could move pretty quickly and easily,” he said, explaining how Team Rubicon got around the red tape that larger organizations encounter. “We were very mobile and it just feels so good and rewarding to be able to do something and help.”

Despite the devastation facing the Haitians after the earthquake, Parello said he could hear the faith of the people, along with the crowing roosters and barking dogs sometimes about 4 or 5 a.m. one day.

“I heard singing and kind of way off and I could only hear it every now and again. It was some kind of service going on and it sounded beautiful,” Parello said.  “I wish it was closer so I could hear it more, but that kind of touched me. You know, here these people, in the midst of all this chaos, still taking time to practice their religion and faith.”

Each day began, ended with prayer

Each day also brought daily prayer among the team and the Jesuits at the novitiate.

“We’d pray every day before we went out; we’d pray every night when we came back,” Parello said, which helped as a way of debriefing at the end of the day, along with talking about the experience with Lang almost every day since. “I make sure I pray and say thank you a lot for what we have. Like I said, I did a lot of praying beforehand for a safe return and for my family not to worry and for all that and everything worked out,” he said as the eager recipient of his daughter’s welcome home sign, the hugs and kisses when he returned to Milwaukee at 11 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 23.

As a firefighter, Parello has seen “a lot of things, but none of which can prepare you for the devastation and what we saw there,” and the experience has changed him.

“It’s amazing just how much we have here and how much we take for granted,” he said. “I think I’m changed because I realize how much we have here now and I’m very appreciative of how we live here, what we have. Family is just super important. I have come back now with almost like being reborn with a new mental and emotional spirit and it feels good – it feels great and I hope it lasts for a long, long time.”