The homecoming of heroes

FAIRFAX — The 70 members of the Fairfax County’s special rescue team returned from their work at the Pentagon on Tuesday to cheers, hugs and tears from family and friends. The team is prepared to go overseas, if needed.

The Fire and Rescue Department’s Urban Search and Rescue Team was deployed Sept. 11 to search for injured people who may have been trapped in the Pentagon after it was attacked by terrorists in a hijacked airliner.

Team members finished their work Monday night and returned to the Fairfax Fire and Rescue Training Academy the next day to greet their families.

Of 28 urban search and rescue teams under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Fairfax team — Virginia Task Force One — is one of two trained for overseas deployments.

“As of right now, we are 100 percent ready to go if there’s an international mission,” said Capt. Dan Bickham.

The other team trained for international disasters, in Miami-Dade County, Fla., is working at the World Trade Center.

Many members of the specially trained Fairfax team live in Prince William County.

A proud Vivian Slemp and daughter Kori Slemp, 7, waited for husband and father Dallas Slemp, the search and rescue team’s logistics head. They live near Manassas.

Kori’s classmates at Loch Lomond Elementary School made a poster they signed for her father, which read, “Thank you for all your hard work.”

Slemp has responded with the team to earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan, and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. This disaster was different, though, because fire was still blazing as the team arrived within hours of the attack, he said.

“It got to the point where people were actually going in and searching while they were still fighting the fire,” said Slemp, a Fairfax County firefighter for 23 years.

Slemp, 44, said he was heartened to see school children on West Ox Road cheering and waving flags as two buses with team members pulled up to the fire academy. He’s also glad to see Americans of different races unite.

Slemp and other rescuers met with President Bush last week at the Pentagon. That day, firefighters draped a large U.S. flag on the Pentagon near the crash site.

“It was just a welcome sight to see the flag was still flying,” said Slemp, who will return to the Pentagon tonight to help the Arlington County Fire Department with logistics.

Bickham, who lives in Prince William’s Lake Jackson area, entered the devastated Pentagon as operations chief for the Fairfax team, leading the rescue operation.

He and other team members were preparing to go to New York City after seeing TV news of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Then they heard about the Pentagon attack.

“It happened so fast; we were on site within four hours of it happening,” Bickham said Tuesday.

Rescuers faced smoke from the flames as they began their primary search for victims, which took several hours.

Bickham knew the chances of finding someone alive were slim — but the chance that someone could be trapped inside made the rescuers press on quickly.

They turned over desks and cabinets where someone might be trapped. “This was a totally incinerated area,” Bickham said. “We turned things over that were completely charred to find something like a piece of paper that had no damage.”

The team constructed 14-foot-tall wood towers to shore up the section of the Pentagon where rescuers worried about floors or debris collapsing on them. They worked with the FBI to collect evidence, such as voice recorders from the American Airlines plane.

Responding to disasters prompts Bickham to remind himself and others to treat people with respect and love, because a natural disaster or terrorist attack can occur at any time.

“At the blink of an eye could be the last time that you ever see a loved one or friend,” he said.

Bickham’s wife Janet, sons Daniel and Bret, daughter Tricia Beglin, grandson Jay Jay, mother Dorothy Bickham and sister-in-law Anita Bickham greeted him at the academy on Tuesday.

Capt. Jim Tolson’s wife, Carol, and daughters Amy, 15, and Cindy, 12, waited as he arrived.

Tolson is one of two safety officers with the team. He was glad rescuers’ injuries were kept to a minimum — two team members received minor injuries during their efforts.

“This was more emotional to me because the people that we are in there looking for are our neighbors, our friends,” said Tolson, 47, of Lake Ridge. “It was like being a firefighter and going to a home down the street.”

Members of the team also are grieving over the deaths of so many firefighters in New York City’ some of whom were friends or trained with firefighters in Fairfax, Tolson said.

At a brief ceremony inside the training academy, Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Katherine Hanley said rescue workers are an example of courage and bravery for children.

“Amidst all the horror, we know for sure that there are American heroes,” she said. “You are our heroes.”

Urban search and rescue teams from Virginia Beach, Memphis, Tenn., and New Mexico continued work at the Pentagon on Tuesday.

Staff writer Patrick Wilson can be reached at (703) 368-7449.

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