Japanese firefighters stranded here due to quake


About a dozen Japanese firefighters who spent the week training with the Menlo Park Fire Protection District have become stranded in the Bay Area after Thursday's earthquake and tsunami forced flights to Japan to be canceled, the district's chief said Friday.

The firefighters were scheduled to finish their training program Friday and fly out Saturday, but they had hoped to leave early when word of the earthquake and tsunami came in, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said.

They were unable to leave due to flight cancellations, and it's unclear when they will make it home.

Schapelhouman said two of the trainees are from companies located in areas heavily impacted by the 8.9-magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami, which killed hundreds of people.

One of the firefighters has made contact with his family, but the other has not been able to reach anyone.

"He's devastated," Schapelhouman said. "It's a stressful time for these guys. They want to be home with their families, working in their communities, serving their countrymen."

The firefighters are in touch with the Japanese consulate and planned to continue training Friday afternoon as officials help them try to find a way out of the U.S.

"They all paid out of their own pockets," Schapelhouman said. "If they don't fly out tomorrow, we might need to accommodate them."

Teams from around the world come to Menlo Park's training facility to learn rescue operations from its staff, which has responded to disasters ranging from floods to earthquakes to terrorist attacks, Schapelhouman said.

Menlo Park rescuers responded to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Oklahoma City bombing, the Loma Prieta earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina, he said.

"We take those lessons and teach them not just what's in a book, but make it real for them," he said. "We teach them to adapt and overcome situations, and what they need to know before and during them."

The staff also teaches its trainees about what can happen to them after rescue missions. Many rescuers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder after disasters, which can include heavy casualties and graphic situations, Schapelhouman said.

He said the Menlo Park Fire Protection District is the first American company up for deployment to Japan if the U.S. government decides to send personnel.

The team asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency if the Japanese firefighters could accompany them on a military aircraft should they be deployed. The fire district is also working with the State Department to get the trainees home, Schapelhouman said.

Until then, the firefighters will finish their training program and be presented Friday afternoon with certificates of completion, he said.

The Baylands Structural Collapse Training Center in Menlo Park is located on the northern side of the Bayfront Expressway, along the western side of the Dumbarton Bridge behind a PG&E electrical substation.

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