Greg Reimann heard the cries for help from 3,500 miles away.
When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated the impoverished Caribbean nation of Haiti last year, the University Place firefighter and paramedic watched with disbelief, just like the rest of us.
The now-38-year-old saw the images of people buried under the rubble of collapsed homes, businesses and government office buildings, just like the rest of us.
And even though he wasn’t part of any military or formalized effort to help Haiti’s suffering people, Reimann wanted to use his skills to save people in crisis.
So he, along with a handful of local firefighters, raised some cash to fly themselves down to Haiti for 10 days last February and gave the people near the capital of Port Au Prince emergency and basic medical care.
The group has since formed a nonprofit entity – EMPACT Northwest – and plans to travel back to Haiti in a few months to provide even more care.
Just like the rest of us? Not even close.
Reimann, a husband and father of three who commutes to UP a few days a week from Kingston, threw himself into the disaster more so than most other firefighters, let alone non-public safety types. In the process of helping Haiti, he developed a perspective of how lucky he is, and how much help others in the world truly need.
“After we came back, most of us on the plane ride back verbalized to each other that, ‘We’ve got to go back,’” he says recently during an interview with me.
Reimann, who’s worked to save lives for 16 years, the last four with UP Fire, is no stranger to disaster response. Aside from his day job, he also provided his paramedic expertise to residents struggling during Hurricane Katrina.
So when the Haiti earthquake hit, without a second thought, he wanted to be there, helping people. He also knew how much red tape would be involved if he tried to go with an organized group or agency.
So Reimann got on the phone and called a friend and firefighter in Gig Harbor, and they decided to form a group to travel to Haiti on their own.
With that, the seeds of EMPACT Northwest began grow.
In February of last year, Reimann was part of a group of six or so paramedics, nurses and firefighters that flew to the Dominican Republic, then hopped on a van for seven hours to reach Haiti.
Once the group arrived, they saw the horrors up close: dead bodies, gruesome injuries, people on the edge of death from sickness.
The group also realized something that would make the need for medical help among locals even more dire: there wasn’t much medical care to begin with.
“The reality of it is these folks were living in pretty dire conditions prior to the earthquake,” he said.
(At this point in our chat, Reimann puts on a slide show that depicts some images from his trip that were both saddening and uplifting)
Through it all, Reimann describes the feelings that ran through him as the tragedy of the Haiti earthquake unfolded before his eyes.
“I don’t think we can convey that feeling into words,” he says. “It was heart-wrenching, really, from a simple humanitarian standpoint.”
It’s refreshing to hear one of our public protectors talk about his emotions. So many times, these guys harden themselves to cope with the job. They might say stuff that seems insensitive, even dark. But as outsiders, we don’t see what they see.
Still, Reimann says the suffering and the poverty the group saw gave them a different perspective on the world, even themselves. The conditions reminded them of how they took little things for granted back home.
For example, as the group made its way back to the Northwest, it had a layover in New York. You’d think that after two weeks of eating military rations and bottled water, they wouldn’t let a warm meal last long.
Instead, the emergency medical workers and firefighters picked at their meals.
While disheartening, their trip to Haiti made them realize how badly people in that region needed their help.
Since then, the group has been to Haiti six or so times, and by group, I mean EMPACT Northwest has recruited more of their colleagues to help.
The group itself has made big strides, establishing itself as a bon fide nonprofit and aligning itself to apply for grants and other fund-raising. The group has an inviting website (where you can donate money), as well as its own Facebook page.
As for Reimann — who was recognized for his efforts by his employer with a medal — he plans to return Haiti in April or May. This time, he wants to help even more people, as the need for it is in abundant supply. He also hopes to see some of the people he met on the first trip.
Reimann went into Haiti wanting to help the suffering. He says he came away from it wanting to help Haiti’s people live.
“It really puts life into perspective.”