Covenant Pastor Leads Firefighting Team to Chile

ELGIN, IL (March 25, 2011) – Henoch Fuentes, an Evangelical Covenant Church minister, and nine firefighters from this community received national attention in Chile recently when they delivered donated fire equipment and helped train emergency personnel in the earthquake-shattered city of Rancagua.

Firefighters gather for training

The nation’s national newspaper featured them in a front-page story and they were welcomed by Chile’s Secretary of the Interior as well as the director of Chile’s training facility for firefighters.

Fuentes, who serves as a chaplain to the Elgin Police Department, raised the idea of donating the used equipment and training the firefighters in Rancagua, his hometown. He had been seeking donations for five years, but the project took on a fresh urgency following the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that devastated the city as well as others on February 27 last year.

Fuentes was in Rancagua when the quake hit and called it “the most terrifying moment of my entire life.”

More than 100 large buildings in the city of 200,000 people were condemned. Two of the city’s five fire stations were destroyed while the main hospital continues to use mobile emergency rooms.

A 44-foot container with equipment was shipped and received before the Elgin firefighters arrived. Items included a thermal imaging camera, “Jaws of Life” extrication equipment, and Vetters Bags, which can lift objects weighing thousands of pounds off trapped victims. The equipment no longer meets National Fire Protection Association requirements in the United States, but still exceeds Rancagua standards.

"Baptism" ceremony welcomes firefighters

The Elgin firefighters trained about 100 of their male and female Chilean counterparts over the course of two days. Some of the training took place among 3,000 apartments near the Covenant Church in Rancagua that were rendered uninhabitable by the earthquake. All of the windows in the buildings were covered with iron bars – the Americans taught the Chileans how to use the equipment to spread the bars apart.

They also taught the Chileans how to search for victims in dark, smoke-filled buildings, a regular part of training in the States, but something new to the South American firefighters. The Rancagua department did have some modern trucks, but had little or no supporting equipment.

Hundreds of people from the city turned out for a “baptismal service” during which new Chilean firefighters are welcomed into the department. The Elgin firefighters were made honorary members of the Chilean firefighting service.

The ceremony included firefighters from each nation climbing a ladder on opposite sides of a ladder-like span. The fighters were sprayed with water from firehouses and met in the center of the span where they hugged each other. One then climbed over the other and proceeded to the opposite side of the span. Sirens from the engines wailed during part of the ceremony.

The firefighters’ day began at 6 a.m. most days and they participated in various activities as late as midnight. One of those days included attending a service at the Covenant Church where Fuentes’ sister serves as pastor.

Fuentes said a highlight of the trip included visiting the site where 33 miners were rescued after being trapped underground for 69 days. The Americans met members of the rescue team, including the leader of the operation, as well as the team member who fixed a door to the rescue capsule.

Everyone involved with the trip are heroes, Fuentes says.

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