SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras —
It was a typical September Honduran morning - temperatures in the mid-70s, the air becoming more humid as the low cloud cover gave way to the heat of the morning sun - and Honduran and U.S. volunteers were making final preparations for a subterranean adventure.
This particular Saturday would have 13 Honduran PUMCIR (Personal Utilizado en Misiones Contra Incendio y Rescate – Personnel Used in Fire and Rescue) volunteers, many of whom are part of the ELITE-RESCUE TEAM, joined by seven U.S. Air Force Airmen assigned to Joint Task Force-Bravo - five firefighters from the 612th Air Base Squadron fire department, one Noncommissioned Officer from the JTF-Bravo Personnel Recovery Coordination Cell and one Public Affairs Officer - conducting a search and rescue exercise inside a cave high up in the mountains of Comayagua National Park.
The group rendezvoused at the home of Herberth Gaekel, the 612th ABS fire department liaison as well as PUMCIR’s founder, instructor and financer. His property, which has been in his family for many decades and tended by the same Honduran man who worked for Gaekel’s father, covers more than 1.7 acres and serves as the PUMCIR’s primary training site due to the diversity of the land and foliage.
The PUMCIR team, consisting of Bomberos (firefighters) who came from the surrounding towns of La Paz, Comayagua, Siguatepeque and La Esperanza, and the Americans, piled into three vehicles, including Gaekel’s conspicuously bright yellow 4x4 truck - an 80’s model Toyota whose immaculate condition defies its age - and headed to El Volcan, a small village about three miles east of Comayagua where the hike would begin. The majority of smiling and laughing volunteer Bomberos weighed down a small pickup truck to the point where the rear wheels scraped the wheel wells as the convoy made its way up the dirt road.
The vehicles were parked and the team unloaded the gear - 50-pound dummy – check. 1,000 feet of rope – check. Firewood to burn to keep the killer bees, mosquitoes and bats at bay – check. Collapsible ladder and rescue stretcher – check. Gloves, helmets and SCUBA tanks – check. Plenty of water and snacks for the six-mile hike – double check. Gaekel provided a safety brief and offered a quick prayer for safety - something he repeated at each critical juncture during the exercise and at its conclusion - and the adventure was begun.
In addition to hundreds of pounds of rescue gear and basic necessities, Gaekel assigned members to carry clothes, shoes and soccer balls to distribute along the way to locals in need of material assistance. One characteristic that stands about the short, half-German, half-Honduran philanthropist is his awareness of the needs of others and his determination to meet them.
After about 30 minutes, Gaekel paused the march and gathered all the Americans to him. He pointed at the side of Montaña La Oki, a 6,000 foot mountain that loomed above us to the southeast and explained the genesis of the PUMCIR.
“Two Americans from Soto Cano were lost while hiking up on the mountain during a storm back in 1994, and they ended up falling off a cliff. One man died, and one man was stuck in a tree with broken legs. He hung there for 36 hours before being found. He didn’t survive,” recollected Gaekel. “I asked who could have done something to help them, and when I found there was no one prepared to conduct search and rescue operations here I decided to create the PUMCIR.”
After sharing this story, Gaekel pointed again, this time at a patch of rock on the side of the mountain about half a mile across a large ravine. “Five more minutes,” he said with a smile. No one believed him.
After almost another 45 minutes we transitioned from sparse pine trees and dry ground to thick jungle-like vegetation where we hit a bottleneck at a place where the trail edged along a hundred-foot drop and became very narrow and slick. Gaekel grabbed one of the longer ropes and disappeared around the bend. Ten minutes later he reappeared with one end of the rope and had it tied off on a tree. We then took turns using harnesses to safely traverse this final section before reaching the cave.
The limestone cave, though obviously visited by numerous people over the decades, still contained thousands-of-years-old stalactites and even columns – and bats, lots of bats. The dummy was placed more than 150 feet into the cave and down a drop at the farthest section of the cave that could be explored without needing spelunking gear. From here, the rescue crews were given only five minutes to safely and successfully extract “Bartholomew” from the depths.
After the three PUMCIR teams completed their training, Gaekel looked up at the clouds building at the mountain peaks and informed us we would just make it out - hopefully - before the rain began. As if on cue, the rain started falling as soon as the gear was unloaded at Gaekel’s property where he had prepared a post-exercise meal of homemade tamales and chili.
The PUMCIR have responded to hundreds of calls in the past 22 years. In fact, Gaekel rapidly departed the meal to respond to call about an accident near his residence.
“This happens all the time, even in the middle of the night,” his daughter, Jenny Gaekel, commented. “I’m sure he’ll tell us how serious this call was when he gets back.”
Once the Good Samaritan returned, he explained that a motorcyclist who was carrying a flag had the material warp around their neck and then get caught in the wheel. A bystander who witnessed the accident was able to cut the fabric free and save the victim’s life, and Gaekel was there to provide first aid until the ambulance arrived. Just another day in life of Herberth Gaekel.
Gaekel, who has been a key factor in the success of CENTAM SMOKE (Central America Sharing Mutual Operational Knowledge and Experience), a bi-annual exercise for Bomberos held at Soto Cano, has invited U.S. service members to join in the PUMCIR training for the past ten years in order to provide them an opportunity to share with and learn from their Honduran counterparts as well as to encourage positive relationship building between the two nations.
Gaekel has provided realistic training to more than 750 students from all over Honduras. He said the training he provides significantly augments what training the volunteers, who are also often full or part-time Bomberos, already receive, and in many cases would not receive if not for his program.
Gaekel lamented that his efforts are not appreciated by everyone since his highly-trained volunteers are often better equipped and prepared to conduct rescue operations than other official organizations. However, he said, it’s about saving lives, not worrying about what some detractors may think.