Citizen Airmen partner with "California Electric Boys" to restore hope

  • Published
  • By Darnell Gardner
  • 452 AMW public affairs
Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series.

Southern California Edison's total load consisted of 16 four-manned crews, eight two-manned trouble crews, eight two-manned disaster assessment crews and support crews to include four mechanics with maintenance and fuel trucks.

Not to discredit a sister utility company, Wood said, but when they arrived at March ARB, their trucks still had full gas tanks, were not cleaned properly and had unsecured, hazardous items on board. By not having inside knowledge of Air Force airlift requirements, they were delayed for almost two days before being cleared to load on the aircraft. As for our cargo, it was ready to go ahead of schedule.

With an armada of C-17 Globemasters and C-5 Galaxy's readied for takeoff to Stewart Air National Guard Base, Newburgh, N.Y, Wood jumped on the lead aircraft so he could have boots on the ground when the equipment arrived. Five hours later and after a visually-challenged landing, the incoming crews were immediately met by Stewart aerial porters who assisted with downloading the cargo.

"When the aircraft doors swung open, I was met by a familiar face from a past Iraq deployment," said Wood. "Master Sgt. O'Connell and I served in Baghdad together. We became pretty good friends."

When O'Connell saw Wood, he shouted, "Hey, the guy dressed in civilian clothes is one of ours [AF] -- let's make sure we take good care of him and his crew!"

With offloading operations moving in a fluid manner, Wood received a frantic call from Randy Daffern, director, SCE, saying the utility crews were stranded at the Ontario Airport due to a broken aircraft. Without hesitation, Wood called Chief Ehlers, 56th APS and had him 'crunch the numbers,' a term used for load planning, to see if the crews could be manifested on the departing flights. Ehlers returned the call within minutes, assuring Wood it could be done. Wood put Ehlers in touch with Daffern so that transportation could be arranged.

No more than 30 minutes later, two buses, along with two flat beds and a small force of Airmen, arrived at Ontario Airport, quickly uploaded the belongings of the responders and hurried them back to March for MilAir departure.

When the SCE crews arrived at the March terminal, supporters of the Flag Mama tradition met them with drinks, snacks and warm smiles. For those who did not know Flag Mama, she was a member of the Moreno Valley Chamber of Commerce and head of the Deployment Center at March Field and for approximately 11 years, she met and greeted each and every Marine that passed through March Field on their way to Afghanistan. Flag Mama supporters provided the SCE crews with a memorable send-off .

During offloading operations, the commander of Stewart ANGB met with Wood to get a clearer picture of what support services would be needed. The first matter of business would be fueling the vehicles and generators. Without hesitation, the commander recalled his Petroleum Oils and Lubricants (POL) team to open operations, so that once the vehicles were on the tarmac, they could be refueled and immediately dispatch to the troubled areas when the crews arrived.

After the March crew's third straight, twenty-four hour day, fatigue began to settle in, so the Stewart ANGB hosts set up a warm place to sleep and shower, along with providing hot food and drinks for the March crews. "From their standpoint, we could not ask for too much," said Wood. The March crews ran on pure adrenaline for the duration of the inbound missions.

When the SCE crews arrived, they were met with fully fueled vehicles, global positioning systems and areas of responsibility. A police escort was standing by to lead them into the city to begin recovery operations.

Entering into the disaster zone mirror something you would see in a post apocalyptic movie. There were downed wires, some energized, tangled among fallen tree branches and debris. Residents had been without power for going on 10 days, so the looks on their faces showed the desperation they had endured. From 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., day in and day out, SCE crews labored to get power back to the residents. Oftentimes, the 16 hours days were extended due to crews wanting to finish the job. Also, the threat of another storm lingered just of the Eastern seaboard.

When the nor'easter hit, it dumped about four inches of snow on the ground, but SCE crews continued to labor on. One of the crews encountered a family that was surprised to see them continuing to work, even though it was snowing.

One of the residents said, "Hey, you guys are from sunny Calif., right? So, what are you doing still out here in this bad weather, when the local crews have already left for the day?" The SCE crew member replied, "We are here to restore your power and nothing less."

When the storm became overwhelming, operations ceased and the crews were able to get some much needed rest and relaxation; however, their idea of rest was not laying around staying warm. One of the SCE crew members found out the city was hosting a Halloween party for the kids in the devastated area. It was a goodwill event to raise the spirit of the kids after having lost so much. The SCE crews banned together with bags of candy and good cheer and joined the hosts of the party to make the occasion even grander.

"We partnered with the fire department to give the kids an experience not to be forgotten," said Wood. "The morale was off the charts, as kids collected their candies and were able to explore our utility vehicles and fire engines. The mayor was amazed that the SCE crews had the strength to join in the party."

Wood said that he would never forget one child in particular that immediately took to his side. "By the end of the event the child's bag was so full of candy that he could barely drag it across the parking lot," he said.

Local residents were so please at the way SCE performed, they would routinely offer food and drink to the crews working on their houses. In one instance, Wood and a fellow crewman were in a donut shop ordering drinks, when a local resident noticed the jacket with SCE on it. The resident said "Hey, aren't you those California Electric Boys, who are here to restore our power?" Wood replied yes, so, in hearing that, the resident immediately threw down a 100-dollar bill and told the donut clerk to give the SCE crews anything they wanted. Wood tried very politely not to accept the offer, but the resident became overly insistent, so either they accept or endure having a long drawn out convincing session.

Wood explained, "In a show of comparison, I was deployed to Iraq to assist with the closeout of the bases and bringing our troops home, but this was a more satisfying feeling. It was American industry and U.S. military partnering to help their own...Americans helping Americans during times of need."

"A safe bet would have put us at restoring power to upwards of 1000 homes per day," said Wood. "Our crews took this task personally."

With the mission near completion, most of the SCE crews had mixed emotions. They pondered, if they did all they could; was there anyone left without power; and should they stay longer to ensure everyone had power?

At the endex of their part in the operation, a few SCE employees looked at Wood and remarked on how organized and efficient the transport phase of the operations went and added, "This is what you do when you are on Reserve duty? We never would have imagined it was this intense."

A former U.S. Marine and current SCE crew member actually stated that because of the March member's performance and what they represented with the Air Force Reserve, he had new found respect for Airmen. He further said that they should no longer be looked upon as just Blue-Suiters, but equally as brothers- and sisters- in arms!

The SCE director stated, "You guys mobilized and had solutions for every variable that was placed in your way, almost immediately. It is as though you were prepared for the unexpected. I have never encountered a more professional group of intelligent, dedicated and organized individuals...a newfound respect."

Chief Wood closed with giving much respect to those who did not receive enough recognition for their contributions behind the scenes. "To the Airmen who participated and volunteered from the 56th and 50th Aerial Porters, Air Tactical Operations Center, Airfield Operations Flight, Airlift Control flight, Aerial Port Support Flight and the remaining Team March members, that were instrumental in the success of the mission, you all need to know that it would not have been as successful if not for your efforts."

Thanks for the jobs they did, thanks to the families who supported them.