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Air Guard joins relief effort

September 05, 2005|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Aboard the cavernous C-130 packed with tired and weary souls somewhere between Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and Yeager Field in Charleston, W.Va., Loadmaster Douglas Ferrell had the chance to step back and absorb his precious freight.

"This is what this job's all about, right here," Ferrell said past nightfall Saturday.

More than 12 hours earlier, at about 8 a.m., Ferrell knew anything could happen that day, but this was the best of all possible outcomes for the tired crew of the 167th Airlift Wing of the West Virginia Air National Guard.

"It's gonna be a long day This is going to be one of those things where we're going to have to be completely flexible," Ferrell said. "I've already made the run once, I was down there on Thursday. The media didn't do it justice, it's pretty bad. There's houses under water, it's pretty rough."

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Still, as he looked upon the plane's 82 evacuees relieved to be anywhere other than the New Orleans airport, he couldn't help but smile, and the afterglow lasted through the day Sunday.

"It makes you feel great to know you accomplished something," he said in a follow-up interview by telephone Sunday afternoon. "We were expecting, maybe, some hostility, after watching the news all week, but the people seemed to be in pretty good spirits, they were just thrilled to get out of the airport."

It was the satisfying culmination of a long day, a confusing one in which only one thing was certain: Nothing was certain.

"Our plan today is going to change today, I guarantee it," crewman S. Jeff Lane said.

Carrying supplies and about 40 members of the West Virginia National Guard, two sets of crews from the 167th Airlift Wing took off from their base at Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport in Martinsburg, W.Va., Saturday morning in separate C-130s bound for New Orleans to assist with the relief effort following Hurricane Katrina.

The crews started their day at the Airlift Wing at about 6:30 a.m., when they performed precheck inspections. The initial flight plan was to fly into Charleston, a 45-minute trip, to pick up four Humvees, supplies and additional guardsmen from units across the state. They would then head to the Naval Air Station New Orleans to drop off their supplies, pick up evacuees from the battered city and take them back to Charleston. From there, the evacuees were to be processed, given showers, clean clothes, and then taken to Camp Dawson near Morgantown, W.Va., for lodging.

"It's one of the reasons I'm in the guard, I'm proud to do it," said Lane, a Leesburg, Va., resident and guardsman for the last 10 years. "We're always enthusiastic about doing our job, but I think this hits a lot closer to home. There's a different feeling to it, it's not like we're going overseas. It's a lot more emotional."

The rush of excitement and adrenaline that overtook him when he got the call was gone as Steve Sigler boarded the cavernous C-130 aircraft in Martinsburg at about 8:40 a.m. There was little to do as he and the other National Guard members waited for takeoff, so he sat there, occasionally closing his eyes for quick naps, swiveling his head to stare at the other guardsmen doing the same, wondering about where the plan and the day would take him, and waiting for his chance to do whatever he could to help a nation wounded by Hurricane Katrina.

"You have ups and downs. When they first call you, you're pumped up and excited," said Sigler, 36, a Smithsburg resident and Clear Spring High School graduate. "Everything's up in the air right now. We don't even know where we're going or what we're going to be doing. That's sort of the hard part, not knowing."

A week into the new school year, Sigler, a physical education teacher at Sabillasville Elementary School, learned Thursday night he would be among a group of National Guard members dispatched to help with relief efforts along the Gulf Coast, possibly in Biloxi, Miss., possibly at the Astrodome.

After departing from Martinsburg at about 9:30 a.m., the planes touched down in Charleston an hour and a half later, and crew members picked up additional supplies and guardsmen from across the state. Among the aircraft's new passengers was Sgt. 1st Class Greg Hoover, a 36-year-old Parkersburg, W.Va., resident with the 77th Brigade.

"I'm just anxious to get down there and help," said Hoover, who returned from Iraq in December. "It can't be any worse than that."

Charleston served as a staging area for the region, and as the base prepared to take on massive amounts of evacuees, Maj. Gen. Allen Tackett, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, was in charge of overseeing the arrangements, deployments and contingencies to process the displaced New Orleans residents.

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