AS a volunteer with the UK International Search and Rescue Team, Andy Barnes is on standby to fly out to an earthquake disaster zone anywhere at a moment’s notice.
The retired firefighter, of Stanhill Lane, Oswaldtwistle, even missed his only daughter’s 18th birthday when the Kashmir region of Pakistan was flattened in 2005.
At 1am on Wednesday, January 13, 2010, the call came through again.
Haiti, a poverty-stricken land ravaged by civil unrest had been hit by a fearsome earthquake, wiping out a feared 300,000 people in one brutal ‘Act of God’.
A veteran from disasters in Armenia, Turkey, India, Algeria and Kashmir, Andy retired from the fire service two years ago but kept up the necessary training and innoculations to stay on the team.
After more than a week of painstaking searching through the rubble for survivors, a priceless four lives had been spared by the 61-strong British deployment, including a two-year-old girl called Mia pulled out by her pigtails.
Remarkably, the bodies of the survivors were intact, but what terrors of the grave grip their minds are almost unimaginable.
When the solemn decision came to call off the search for life the huge rebuilding operation began but, for Andy, it was job done and time to try and pick up the pieces of normality.
He arrived home last Saturday to be reunited with proud wife Pam and daughter Gemma – and headed straight to watch Accrington Stanley in the cup.
He thinks it will take him a week to recover physically from Haiti, but 30 years in the fire service comes with a disarming realism.
Andy, 52, said: "By day five or six your chances are extremely remote of finding survivors. You have got to strike a balance between search and rescue and getting aid in because you are going to save a lot of lives by proper medical care and food and water. Search and rescue can hinder that process because it changes the focus."
Among Andy’s duties were team leader and managing the team base at Port-au-Prince airport.
He said: "It is a physically and mentally challenging job, compounded by the situation in Haiti. UN troops are providing security and there are shanty towns, prostitution, drugs and daily murders.
"You do need a structure there otherwise you get total disorganisation or wasting resources. When you get to a building you marked it up with a spray can with ‘UK’ so you are not revisiting buildings.
"There has to be someone there in a coordinating role managing things like delegation, reconnaissance, and health and safety. But I would never commit someone to somewhere where I wouldn’t go myself, so I would crawl in and have a look. You would see big concrete floors bowing. Suddenly you get a few kilograms of dust dropping which means above you it’s all settling. It’s a high risk environment and you limit that by the time you’re in there."
The volunteers ate one hot meal a day from a packet and rigged up their own shower - a godsend in 35 degree heat which worsened the stench of open sewers, rotten food and human decay.
One frustration was that working after dark – which can provide a window of calm to listen for distant voices – was deemed too dangerous.
"On previous deployments we have worked through the night," said Andy. "It was frustrating that we couldn’t work 24 hours a day and I’m sure a lot more lives would have been saved. That’s just the situation. There are some serious gangs there."
On one occasion Andy explained how the presence of their six armed guards made carrying out a search of a high security ‘red zone’ almost impossible. So they decided to leave the guards behind.
He said: "We told them we don’t feel this is a threat and off we went. We were certainly nervous but it quickly transpired that there was no threat to us. One of the team was a French speaker so he spoke to anyone who looked influential. There would be a quick conversation finished off with a handshake."
In one harrowing incident, they came across a lady in her mid 20s to 30s who was alive, but had got five floors worth of rubble pinning her legs.
Andy said: "To start dismantling the building was high risk for the teams we had got there.
"A doctor went in and there was the possibility of amputation, but this didn’t happen. They had to withdraw.
"She died during the night."
The team was also called out to an L-shaped building – the remains of a university where there were said to have been 200 students – where voices had been heard.
Andy said: "This was a house of horrors. A few had walked out immediately and a few more had been rescued. You would see a leg and a face, and I’m not talking one or two, I’m talking about seven or eight people."
With the city’s main hospital destroyed, makeshift camps were set up for casualties and the homeless – bandages fashioned out of ripped up t-shirts and homes out of cardboard and tarpaulin.
Some of the lucky ones were taken to a huge air-conditioned field hospital, which was inundated with 140 patients within two hours of opening.
Andy said: "We saw one young girl probably no older than my daughter and she was just sat there looking around with a vacant expression. At the end of the bed she had a carrier bag and you just knew that was her world."
"How do you start to rebuild life for these children? I just hope the world community is in there for the long term. For far too long it’s been forgotten."
Donations to the DEC Haiti appeal can be made by calling 0370 6060900, through www.dec.org.uk or over the counter at any post office or high street bank, quoting Freepay 1449.