Alaskans eager to help victims

Firefighters, airmen plan to fly to Asia to help tsunami victims

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2004


Every bit helps: Mike Smith, executive director for the American Red Cross in Alaska, left, brings a jar Thursday to Cyndi Dyons at the Snow City Cafe in Anchorage to hold donations for the earthquake-tsunami victims.

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ANCHORAGE - Some people are flying to Thailand to help pick up bodies or deliver supplies. Some are collecting cash for survivors. Professionals and students are volunteering their skills.

Alaskans from around the state are rushing to help victims of Sunday's earthquake-tsunami disaster, which killed more than 117,000 people across 11 nations in southern Asia and East Africa.

"There's a feeling of generosity and empathy," said Mike Smith, an official with the American Red Cross of Alaska. "It's much like the immediate post 9/11 phase, when people were facing something so horrific they just had to do something."

The Red Cross has fielded hundreds of phone calls and e-mails from Alaskans statewide offering to donate goods or travel to devastated sites. Callers include doctors, nurses, divers, mental health professionals, pilots and students, said Joe Mathis, who heads the Alaska chapter.

The agency, however, is not accepting in-kind donations of goods and services for this crisis.

The Red Cross is working with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich to raise $50,000 in relief funds by today - and Alaskans are opening their wallets. As of Thursday morning, at least $15,000 had come in and officials expected to easily meet their goal. Businesses - including Anchorage restaurants and a Juneau supermarket - are setting up collection containers, Mathis said.

Six members of the Anchorage Fire Department are planning to fly to Phuket, Thailand, early Saturday to help collect bodies. Among those going is Battalion Chief Mark Hall, who said he was inspired to organize the 10-day effort after watching a television newscast that showed a victim's body still dangling from a tree two days after the quake.

"We just want to help," he said. "No matter what little we can do, it wouldn't get done if we're not there."

The crew has collected nearly $10,000 from Anchorage businesses and residents, Hall said. The money will be used for travel and other necessities and the group plans to donate whatever is left to victims.

More firefighters than the mission required were eager to get involved.

"People came to me and said they had passports," Hall said. "Some people were mad at me that they couldn't go."

Forty-three airmen from Elmendorf Air Force Base had planned to head to Thailand on Thursday but were delayed. The airmen, from the 517th Airlift Squadron, departed for Utaphao in four C-130 transport planes that are to be used to deliver food, water and medical supplies to regions struck by tsunamis. But the planes had to turn back Thursday afternoon after being unable to refuel in Shemya and Hawaii due to bad weather, according to Elmendorf Air Force Base officials.

Tech. Sgt. Theo McNamara said it took 16 hours - instead of the usual 24 hours - to organize the mission after the U.S. Department of Defense issued the deployment order Wednesday afternoon. The deployment, when it reaches Thailand, will likely last at least 45 days, he said.

"A lot of these guys just got home from Afghanistan - within weeks - and they were standing in the front of the line hoping to go," McNamara said. "There's a feeling of excitement that they're able to serve. It's an opportunity for us to lend support to a great cause."

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was among those advocating for development of a tsunami warning system in the affected region .

It would be similar to the West Coast-Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer that was created after Alaska's 9.2 magnitude earthquake in 1964.

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