Ojai's Hanley tells of efforts to piece together
By Jesse Phelps
It takes a strong will, a strong constitution
and a strong stomach to fight forest fires. It takes an adventurous
spirit to be a park ranger. Maeve Hanley of Casitas Station,
Engine 51, has all these qualities in spades and perhaps that's
why she was chosen for a very special assignment recently.
Hanley, along with two groups of 2,500 people from all over the
country, left her quiet post for the briar patches of Texas last
month as part of the massive cleanup effort after the crash of
space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1.
"They gathered thousands and thousands of us from around
the country to go to Texas and do it," she says. Hanley
left Ojai on Feb. 20 and stayed in Corsicana, Texas, for 18 days
at one of two camps set up for recovery workers. The other was
located in Palestine.
Hanley described the living conditions in Texas as "pretty
bad," with thousands of people housed in "an old tobacco
warehouse where it was like 20 degrees in the daytime and below
zero at night and we were in our tents and it was cold."
She says it rained a lot and workers had to sift through thick
briar patches, but the knowledge that astronauts are still in
space with no shuttle flights to bring them home kept everybody
focused. NASA flights are on hold and four astronauts - three
American and one Russian - remain aboard the International Space
Station even now.
"It kept us going knowing we were
helping to bring them home," she says. "Hoping that
they can get home and keep going and find out what went wrong
so they could keep doing their missions."
Hanley estimates that about 2,500 people shared each camp. The
workers were separated into crews of 20, further divided into
squads of 10. Hanley says she woke up at about 4 a.m. each day
and would return around 7 p.m.
After breakfast, Hanley said, she would receive her briefing
and her map. "It was, like, super-high security. Couldn't
talk on your cell-phones, couldn't take any pictures, had to
wear a badge, everything," she says. "We would get
a map and we would go out there and we would just grid, all day
long. Ten and a half miles on average day."
"Some days," she continues, "We couldn't hit as
much acerage because the briars were so thick. It's this thick
brush that has thorns as long as your finger. And it's pouring
rain so your rain gear's completely getting ripped to shreds.
Everything is bleeding, you're just totally ripped to shreds.
When you were in the briar patches it was harder and it was a
much slower process because you had to look up and look down
and around and you're searching through everything and it's raining
and it's snowing and it's It was swamps and everything. At least
it was flat. Everyone got out of shape," she says with a
That's because she's used to working the hilly terrain of the
Los Padres and other forestlands, battling blazes up and down
mountainsides. "We get assigned for anything from forest
fires to any kind of natural disaster," she says. In her
usual job, seven people share an engine and "we run five
people daily. We're seven days a week and we do everything from
brush fires to car accidents, anything that happens along Highway
The schedule is 21 days on for every two days off. "You
don't have a life, basically," she says. But she does get
to travel a lot. "We get sent away on assignments all the
time," she says. "We go up to Montana and Oregon and
Colorado, everywhere. You get dispatched in the middle of the
night, the middle of the day, whenever. We go to Hawaii. I spent
two months in Montana in 2000. It's really cool. It's a fun job.
You never know what'll happen."
She says the "medical parts are harder. We constantly go
to car accidents and people die. On this road we have so many
motorcycle accidents and the boating accidents. I used to be
on the Ojai Engine, in Wheeler Gorge actually, and that was insane.
That was just accidents all day long. I will never ride a motorcycle
after this job."
So it was actually something of a respite searching for shuttle
fragments. Hanley was so adept, she got a nickname: "Eagle
Eyes." She wasn't thrilled about it, though. "That
was bad," she says. "I always get a nickname. I'm the
only girl, so I always get something."
She modestly claims that all members on the crew found their
share. "On average, I think we were probably finding 20
to 30 pieces a day," she says. "We were finding everything
from pieces of tile to reinforced carbon to pieces of film, wire,
all different kinds of stuff."
Whenever something was found, a protocol kicked in and it could
become an emotional experince. "It was really sad, actually,"
she says. "It was very strange when you would find a piece.
You always had NASA with you. When anyone would find a piece,
you'd raise your hand and you'd say, 'NASA!' and they'd come
over and they'd put it in a bag and they'd tell you what it was,
what part of the ship it was on.
"And it was really emotional because the NASA people that
were out there with us were the people that were actually putting
the ship together, so they were really emotional about it. And
every time we found a piece it was very emotional for them, which
rubbed off on us. And the more we found, the more upsetting it
was getting, because we were finding pieces the size of your
pinky nail, which made you realize the impact that happened."
She says some crews found bigger pieces too. "One crew found
a whole wing. And they found a lot of body parts; we weren't
in the part where they found that, luckily."
Hanley says that besides knowing she was helping to solve a mystery
and get the astronauts still in space home, another aspect of
the mission that made her feel good was the support of the locals.
"The people in Texas were so nice," she remembers.
"'Cause everyone heard it there. They heard it go down so
everyone just loved us and thought we were so great and nice,
which we weren't expecting at all."
Before she left to come home, she and her mates got to meet family
and friends of the crew that was lost. "We talked to a bunch
of astronauts and a lot of the family," she says. "The
family came down and talked to us, of the crew members, and they
did a big ceremony for us and that was really emotional. I didn't
think it would be but it was."
Hanley was one of two locals picked for
the mission. Also going was Mike Torres, a Ventura resident who
works on the Ojai Engine, and many representatives from Ventura
County Fire contributed their services as supervisors.
Dave Festerling, Deputy Fire Chief of Ventura County, says, "The
way it works for us is several members of our department work
on a Type 1 Incident Command Team.
They're assigned to those teams and they're
on standby rotation. They may be on a media call one week or
a secondary call another week. They have to agree to be on those
teams and be on call during those times of the year that their
teams are up."
14 people from Ventura County Fire and two from Ventura City
Fire helped out in supervisory capacities. "These guys are
on the team that organizes the search and manages the search,"
says Festerling. "When the team got there, they looked at
the job they had and they had certain tasks or specialists that
For instance, we sent a map specialist
to the site, a communications specialist proficient with organizing
communication networks and maintining repeaters and the portable
radios that go with the repeater networks. They'll have caches
of portable radios and repeaters that can be placed on mountaintops
so everybody in the area can talk to each other over this dedicated
Festerling says Ventura also sent a safety specialist and a medical
specialist. Most of those from Ventura County, he says, served
as division supervisors, responsible for organizing a geographical
area of the search, and strike team leaders who worked for a
division supervisor managing crews or vehicles.
"Some of these folks," says Festerling, "Are actually
trainees and they're down there with a task book and working
for a person who's qualified in a position they're trying to
obtain. That person supervises them, observes them doing the
task, kind of coaches them. When they've completed certain tasks,
that's how they qualify to actually be in that position at a
future event. It's actual on-the-job training.
For Hanley's part, the experience wasn't about learning something
new as much as helping to bring back the astronauts and the space
program. And amid the chaos, she met some interesting people.
"We really had this great representative from NASA, he was
just our favorite guy," she says. "We called him NASA
John. He was just the smartest guy ever. He knew anything about
anything you could ever ask him. It was funny because he was
like this Star Trek guy. When he first started coming out with
us he was talking with this huge lingo and nobody could understand
Then he totally started to warm up and
he knew, like, everything about The Simpsons. We were so taken
away with him because he was just his insanely smart guy and
he was so nice. We loved him. All of us keep in touch with him."
Now Hanley can be found back at her post, ready to tackle the
next situation. And the beat goes on in Texas. "When we
left, they replaced us all," she says.
The Ojai Valley News
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