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Fairplay man returns from bombing rescue mission

August 17, 1998

Rescuer aids in KenyaBy LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer [enlarge]




Snip out the events of the previous 10 days and the Leatherman family's shopping trip Monday might have seemed rather routine.

The last time Randy and Barb Leatherman of Fairplay were at Prime Outlets in Hagerstown they got as far as the toy store before they received a call that would interrupt their lives.

Randy Leatherman, 37, was summoned on Aug. 7 to help with rescue efforts in Nairobi, Kenya, after the bombing of the U.S. Embassy there.

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He went to Kenya as part of an international search and rescue team based in Fairfax, Va., where he works as a paid firefighter.

He returned with renewed appreciation for his family and his country, he said.

"When you find bodies and you think that could be your family ... Your nerves are frayed. You get a little misty-eyed," he said.

He arrived home Sunday night, and even small things like playing fetch with the family dog Sugar and eating pizza with his two boys, Jared, 8, and Jordan, 6, seem special.

"I slept really well last night," he said in an interview at the outlet center, where he and his family were finishing their shopping trip.

Leatherman's team works for both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. They went to Oklahoma City after the April 1995 bombing, although Leatherman was unable to go that time.

Leatherman has been called to help in the aftermath of hurricanes and earthquakes in the four years he has been on the team. This was his first international assignment.

The U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed on Aug. 7.

Team members began their work in Kenya after a 17-hour flight on a U.S. Air Force C-5, which was big enough to carry the 62-member team and a tractor-trailer full of equipment.

They worked in shifts, with Leatherman on the 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift, digging through the debris with jackhammers and steel cutters looking for any sign of life.

Although encouraged by the number of voids in the rubble that could have offered protection during the blast, the team found only the dead, at the rate of one body every half hour.

Five days after the bombing, they pulled out the body of a young woman who had been dead for less than 24 hours.

"It occurred to me then we really couldn't go fast enough," he said.

But it wasn't for lack of preparedness, he said.

The team was well equipped and had plenty of personnel with the help of search and rescue teams from France and Israel, he said.

Another problem is that search dogs can't distinguish between the living and the dead, he said.

The death toll from the explosion was 243, including 12 Americans.

He said he is proud of the team's efforts. In five days, they removed all the debris, he said.

The team was warmly received by the Kenyan people.

"I found myself apologizing a lot for the innocent lives that were lost," he said. "I was surprised they weren't angry at us."

Seeing the Third World poverty also made him feel lucky to be an American.

He and other team members, who ate 3,000-calorie MREs, or meals ready to eat, gave their leftovers to residents.

Barb Leatherman was glad to have her husband back. The day he returned was their 12th wedding anniversary.

She said she was overwhelmed when the unexpected call came in, but family and friends pitched in to help her keep the household running smoothly. Her employers at Washington County Hospital's home health care department were understanding, she said.

"After the initial shock wore off, everyone was very supportive," she said. "I was never really scared."

She was well-informed about the rescue team's daily experiences.

Randy Leatherman grew up in Sharpsburg, where he joined the volunteer fire company as a teenager.

He worked for the Hagerstown City Fire Department from 1982 to 1985, when he left to work in Fairfax.

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