First responders ready to risk it all

In the Oakland office, on the quiet days, paperwork can be stifling.

"It's like I get to do income taxes times 20 here?" said Oakland Fire Assistant Chief Mark Hoffman.

Hoffman played college football for Cal. The piles on his desk correlate with even bigger ones in a room next door where there are boxes, packed with emergency gear. There are tools like the long-reach blowtorches, to the stuff of fine dining in difficult places, like meal in a bag.

"Some people think it tastes like cardboard, but after it's rehydrated, it's quite delectable," said Dr. Ben Ho.

Dr. Ben Ho of the Moraga Fire Department is another member of what FEMA calls Task Force Four. These men in an Oakland warehouse, among 28, federally funded urban search and rescue teams, ready to leave on short notice.

"Katrina was our last big one," said Dr. Ho.
"But the next would could be?" asked ABC7's Wayne Freedman.
"Could be tomorrow or tonight," said Dr. Ho.

Usually, when we show these guys on the news, they're getting ready to go somewhere, or else they've already in action. During Katrina, plucked victims from rooftops and dangerous waters. These, the most hardcore rescue people from 13 local fire departments.

"I'm trying to be a useful human being. Trying to do my part," said Captain Kevin Nuuhiwa, from Oakland.

Nuuhiwa is like most of the other men in this unit; he went to the World Trade Center after September 11th.

"It was overwhelming. And always be the most devastating scene that I have ever gone to," said Nuuhiwa.

That task was more difficult than usual because, among the bodies they recovered were other fire fighters from New York, the same men with whom they worked in the Oklahoma Federal Building bombings.

"Who would have known that six years later, I would be in New York trying to recover the bodies of my co-workers," said Dr. Ho.

Each of these men has seen history, up close. Dr. Ho remembers the Oakland firestorm in 1991 and how he used a sniffing dog to find human remains.

After Loma Prieta in 1989, Mark Hoffman was one of the first firefighters to arrive at the Cypress Structure. All of them went in to save people, despite aftershocks.

"And it was the hand of God. Literally, car sized chunks of concrete, the whole upper deck pancaked down. Cars tossed onto the road below," said Hoffman.

"You could feel the road shaking while you were crawling around. It was a little unnerving for the first few minutes, for me personally and then it was something I put it into the back of my mind. I figured, if it goes, it goes," said Hoffman.

"If it's going to happen, then it's going to happen," said Dr. Ho.

"You get in the fray. It is your job to put yourself in harm's way for the public. That is what you signed on to do," said Nuuhiwa.

So now maybe it makes sense, how, for men of action, quiet days seem to move more slowly. Quiet for them means good news for us, but in a world that change in an instant.

"Never underestimate Mother Nature," said Dr. Ho.

Isn't it nice to know that somebody has your back?

"The point is that it serves the greater good. There are honorable and ethical things about serving your fallow man selflessly, that drives people and organizations to do what they do," said said Nuuhiwa.

And so, as the Bay Area approached the anniversary of the Loma Prieta quake, ABC7 salutes all of the Bay Area's first responders willingly risk their lives for strangers.

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