Utah Airmen among first military responders to Chilean earthquake

  • Published
  • By Army Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill
  • National Guard Bureau
First they feared for their own lives, then Utah Air National Guardmembers helped others as a training mission in Chile took a no-notice turn to humanitarian relief.

Air Force Lt. Col. Boyd Badali and Senior Master Sgt. Joe Mace were among members of the 151st Air Refueling Wing staying on the 15th floor of a Santiago hotel when they were shaken awake at 3:34 a.m., by the Feb. 27 earthquake.

The two were part of a Utah team on a training mission to teach Chilean Air Force members how to conduct mid-air refueling with a newly delivered KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling tanker.

"Is that a bomb that just went off?" Mace wondered, as the microwave and dishes in his room crashed to the floor and all the water from the toilet splashed onto the bathroom floor.

But this was no manmade disaster - it was an 8.8-magnitude earthquake. "As the Richter scale goes up, it goes up exponentially, and each point is 10 times worse than the last point," Mace said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

The Chilean quake was more than 10 times worse than the Jan. 12 7.0-magnitude tremor that killed up to 230,000 in Haiti.

"I could barely stand, it was shaking so hard," Badali said. "When I sat back down on that bed, I fully expected the floor to drop out from under me and to ride it down."

Watching the elevator doors slamming open and shut as the building shook, Mace also feared for his life. "I thought that this could be my last moment on earth," he said. "I've never been so scared in my life."

The two made it to the street, where they would spend the remainder of the night. Within 15 minutes, U.S. Embassy personnel arrived to check on them.

Sirens sounded. The power failed. Bricks scattered the ground. Barriers once cemented in the ground lay askew.

Four Guardmembers and active duty Airmen from Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas had arrived Feb. 16 to deliver the Stratotanker to Chile, the first of three. It was a training mission to provide flying and maintenance support to two Chilean pilots, a boom operator and more than 30 maintainers, Utah National Guard officials said.

The devastation was worse in other parts of Chile than what the team saw in Santiago.

"As soon as we saw the news, we realized that we were going to be involved," said Badali, who had been impressed during an arrival briefing by Chile's record of helping other nations in crisis.

"If you think of the priorities that people need - food, clothing, shelter - that's what we've been doing," Badali said.

The Stratotanker doesn't just carry fuel, and the Utah Guardmembers had flown a dozen relief missions by Wednesday afternoon, with more to come.

First, they moved a mobile medical care unit to ConcepciĆ²n, one of the worst-hit cities; then firefighters to tackle the tremor-sparked fires; then mobile field kitchens.

At first, their cargos came from Chile, which is prepared to deal with earthquake aftermaths. Later, they included supplies pouring in from around the world, such as tents and blankets donated by China.

As they fly their relief missions, they have only to look down to realize why aid is important.

"We [saw] an area that had been hit by the tsunami," Badali said. "That was horrible. It was just wiped out."

Mace said the aftermath reminds him of the atmosphere in the United States after the manmade disaster of 9/11.

"The national pride here in Chile has been one of the things that has impressed me the most," he said. "Even with all this, being scared out of your mind, with an earthquake and everything, Chile is just a fantastic place."

The shocks continue. A 7.2-magnitude quake struck today just as Chile was inaugurating a new president.

The Utah relief missions continue too. At least until June, possibly longer, depending on an extension the crew is seeking.