By Alastair Jamieson
Published: 3:30PM GMT 23 Jan 2010
Dean Harris and Rudy Parkes from West Midlands Fire Brigade with two year old Mia whom they rescued after three days trapped in rubble Photo: PA
Sixty-two experts were scrambled to help with the biggest natural disaster since the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, pulled four alive from the rubble, including a two-year-old toddler called Mia who spent three days trapped in debris.
Mission organisers said it was the most difficult operation they had ever dealt with and was hampered by security restrictions.
Onlookers broke into applause as members of the UK International Search and Rescue Team emerged at Gatwick Airport shortly after 5.30am on Saturday.
Search and rescue experts from nine fire brigades took part, along with medics and volunteers.
Dave Phillips, 43, a search and rescue training manager with Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue, said temperatures as high as 100F (38C) and the smell of bodies had added to the difficulties.
“There was destruction everywhere, and getting anything done was a challenge,” he said. “I think the people were just shell-shocked.
“There was very little grief. They were just concentrating on getting food and water.
“The only time we saw real grief was in one village where came across a young woman who had just lost her father.
“People were out in the street because they were afraid to go back into their houses.”
After flying out on January 13, the British team set up a camp near Port au Prince airport and began searching for survivors as well as organisation medical evacuations with the help of US army helicopters.
They were the first international rescuers to venture out of the capital, reaching victims in the flattened coastal town of Leogane.
In total they saved four lives, including two-year-old Mia, a 55-year-old man found among the rubble of a supermarket, a 39-year-old woman in a collapsed block of flats and a 60-year-old man who had been at home in bed at the time of the earthquake.
However, their efforts were restricted to areas deemed safe by UN security workers, and one day was spent in a ‘lockdown’ at the base amid fears of looting.
Neil Fritzsche, 53, a specialist search officer with Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue, said: “We split into separate teams and just walked the streets until local people told us where they need help. We didn’t have to go far; about 80 per cent of the buildings had collapsed.
“I came across a university where 300 were killed. It was quickly obvious that nothing could be done. The building had ‘pancaked’ so each floor was crushed and some of the bodies were partly hanging out of the side.”
Also returning were two British search dogs: Holly, a seven-year-old black Labrador from Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue, and Echo, a seven-year-old golden Labrador based at Moss Side fire station in Manchester.
In accordance with rabies rules, the pair have been placed in quarantine for six months following their mission.
Peter Crook, national coordinator of the UK International Search and Rescue Team of firefighters (UK-ISAR) said: “This has been our most difficult mission to date. Communication has been difficult, as has getting equipment around and dealing with the heat.”
Mick Lewin, a firefighter from Billingshurt, West Sussex, who was met at the airport by his wife Lucy, said: “It was really frustrating not to be able to help everybody but we did everything we could. The humanitarian effort will be going on for a long time to come.”
St. John Stanley, 44, a firefighter also from Billingshurst, was greeted at the airport by his wife Amanda, 42 and children Jemima, six and Harry, nine.
She said: “We got a text message most days or a phone call to say he was all right. On the day of the big aftershock I got an update from the fire service to say he was unharmed.”
“The children know what job dad does and for the most part they are not upset by it although it has been hard to watch the pictures on the news.”
Keith Bellamy, a member of the urban search and rescue team at Hampshire Fire and Rescue, said Haiti was in a state of “chaos and confusion” when the teams first arrived.
“We were based near the airport at Port au Prince and were helping to source fuel and purify water,” he said. £The weather was extremely hot – about 38 Celsius in the shade – which made things even more challenging.”
The 7.0-magnitude quake killed an estimated 200,000, according to Haitian government figures cited by the European Commission.
The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said: ”The government has declared the search and rescue phase over.”
A total of 132 people were pulled alive from the rubble of the devastated country, the United Nations (UN) said.
Countless dead remained buried in thousands of collapsed and toppled buildings in the capital, Port-au-Prince, while as many as 200,000 have fled the city of two million, the US Agency for International Development said.
As the UK teams headed back, International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander said: ”We should all be proud of the brave UK firefighters who worked tirelessly to help the Haitians, in difficult and dangerous conditions. ‘I would like to thank them on behalf of the UK Government.”
He added: ”Their work is now done, but the international aid effort continues.”
A spokesman for the Department for International Development said: ”The search for survivors in Haiti is coming to an end.
”Following consultation with the UN, the UK team, like other international search and rescue teams, is now leaving. They have done all they can and the rescue effort is now moving on to another phase.”
John Bonney, president of the Chief Fire Officers’ Association, was among those waiting at dawn at Gatwick to welcome the rescue team home. He said: “They have been working in extremely challenging conditions and their achievements in Haiti are testament to their exceptional commitment, professionalism and dedication.”
Despite the end of the search and rescue phase, survivors were still being pulled from the rubble in Haiti on Friday.
Judith Highgate, a trainee doctor from Canterbury, Kent, was among those on the British mission, as a volunteer for Search and Rescue Assistance in Disasters (SARAID). She said: “We were providing first aid wherever we could in the street. There were lots of wounded.”
Mr Fritzsche said Mia, the two-year-old girl rescued from a collapsed kindergarten, was brought to the base by her mother who wanted to say ‘thank you’ to the British team.
“She had changed so much in just two days; even though she was remarkably unscathed she had been dehydrated and frightened yet she looked so happy when her mother brought her along to the base to say thank you to us.”
“It was lovely to see her smiling and playing – a very uplifting event in an otherwise unpleasant operation.”