Jackson firefighter returns from Ukraine relief mission
April 21, 2022
JACKSON — Sam Stein, a firefighter for Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Station 1, is returning home after spending nearly two weeks in Ukraine on a relief mission.
Stein spoke about the highs and lows, from delivering necessities to spending Easter recovering bodies in the war-torn country.
The team first landed in Poland, where they organized supplies and drove into Ukraine.
“In Poland it was mostly meeting the team and starting to build the camaraderie,” Stein said. “We ended up getting into Ukraine, no problem, with our humanitarian driver.”
One of the first acts of business for Task Force Joint Guardian, a group composed of 11 firefighters, nine from the U.S., one from Germany and one from Australia, was an unplanned delivery of aid. A Jackson woman had a friend in crisis in Bucha.
The Ukrainian woman “was desperately in need of food, water, supplies, a generator, clothes and fuel,” Stein said. “We pulled some strings and were able to ensure she’s getting a full pallet of aid.”
Stein said the team spent its days clearing buildings and recovering bodies. Stein estimates he helped the team clear six to eight buildings in total, although it was hard to tell given that it was all mostly rubble.
On Saturday Stein and the team cleared roughly four large apartment buildings that were hit by a 500-kilogram bomb. One of the buildings was a nine-story apartment where the team helped with body recovery.
“On Sunday we did body removal on two buildings and were successful,” Stein said.
One of these structures was a house in which the team recovered the body of a 42-year-old man in the debris. Neighbors said his name was Vlodymyr.
“He was screaming for two days and neighbors couldn’t get to him,” Stein said. “He was crushed from the artillery strike.”
Stein said the men try to distance themselves from the personal details but, when it’s safe to do so, they pause for a moment of silence. Although it’s not always the best to be standing around in a war.
While in Hostomel, Stein also helped deliver extrication tools to the fire station and stopped at outposts along the way to deliver cold weather gear to soldiers.
On Monday the team was attacked with rockets as it was working to clear toppled buildings, searching for bodies while working around grenades, mines and tripwires left by Russians. Stein said no one on his team was hurt.
Stein said he observed grenades in doorways and on tripwires in civilian areas. Even benign bathroom breaks were punctuated with discarded bullet cartridges and land mines.
“Coming into Kyiv, we saw lots of tanks destroyed on the west side,” Stein said. “We also found shells from Russian AK rifles littered on the ground when we got out to use the bathroom. When we started to walk into the trees to bathroom break right off the highway, the security escorts ran at us and yelled ‘not safe, not safe’ because they hadn’t cleared the mines yet.”
Thursday evening was spent dipping in and out of a bunker several times.
“We were in Lviv and had several alerts and air raid sirens,” Stein said. “We had to take cover; luckily none were around us. There’s been action here since we got here but nothing too significant besides the mines and traps the Russians left for us, and we’ve spotted them.”
Luckily, Easter was quiet for the team although a larger attack may be imminent.
“There were a few rocket attacks last night but it’s quiet so far,” Stein said. “The 24th is actually when they celebrate Easter here, so a major attack is now projected to be later. Most militaries have large-scale attacks on holidays.”
Even while grappling with daily destruction, Stein found fulfillment in the work.
“The most rewarding part of the entire experience has been the Ukrainian people,” Stein said. “The firemen are so welcoming and are beyond overjoyed when they see us helping them. They are so overworked and in danger every day, yet they smile and laugh.”
Stein returned stateside Tuesday, at which point the team distributed the remaining supplies and firefighting equipment. Stein said he wasn’t sure how long the rest of the team plans to remain in Ukraine.
One thing that he’s taking with him is the brotherhood.
“The brotherhood of the fire service is universal,” Stein said. “Also the amount of camaraderie between our team is insane. To not know these people for more than a week and all of a sudden have three best friends I’m working with is incredible.”
This story was published on April 20.