Lima-based Friar Helps with Crisis in Bolivia

Christopher Dunn, OFM Friar News

Last week, Holy Name friar and pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Lima, Peru, Christopher Dunn, OFM, returned home after spending four days in Bolivia as part of a recovery mission. He traveled to Santa Cruz on Jan. 28 after learning about a building that collapsed on Jan. 24. As a member of the Urban Search and Rescue in Peru, Christopher and the rest of the USAR Peru team arrived 96 hours after the incident and worked through the night until Saturday morning. On Saturday and Sunday, he and his teammates worked rotating shifts. The group recovered the bodies of 12 people. Three remain missing and are presumed dead. The group departed Bolivia on Feb. 1 to return to Peru.

In the diary-style report below, Chris describes the mission and his emotions during the rescue. The descriptions were e-mailed to the HNP Communications Office.

Sunday, Jan. 30
Shortly after midnight on Tuesday, an eight-story building — full of young construction workers and some families — collapsed in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, when workers were retro-fitting the main support columns in the basement that were showing stress cracks. Apparently the collapse was due to poor design and poor materials.

Santa Cruz has a population of roughly 2.8 million and is located in the middle of the “high jungle” of Bolivia. It’s very hot and humid here, making it extremely difficult to do physical work — let alone crawl into confined spaces in a collapsed building.

The local government was unable to manage the disaster with the limited resources on hand, but didn’t request help until nearly two full days after the collapse. Eleven team members (including me) of Urban Search and Rescue Lima left for Bolivia at 6 p.m. Thursday in a military plane.

USAR Lima is an elite team trained in rescue techniques for collapsed structures. I have been serving as chaplain for the Peruvian Fire Corps for more than two years and with the USAR Lima team for one year. We are one of several USAR tams responding to the crisis.

So far, nine bodies have been recovered. As chaplain, I have been blessing them when they are removed from the rubble and helping the families of victims with stress debriefings.

There has been a tremendous outpouring of generosity in the form of donations and volunteers. The amount of food, material and goods that have been donated is an extreme generosity like I have never seen before. In the midst of this disaster, we have not wanted for anything.

Monday, Jan. 31
I am very tired. The fire fighters have been working in shifts for four days. There are rescue teams and experts here from Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru and France and, of course, Bolivia.

Three bodies are still missing. No one has been rescued alive. Right now, we have been demobilized and are awaiting transportation via the Peruvian Air Force back to Lima.

The incident commander had all work stopped on the outside of the building each time I blessed a body. I was able to talk to one of the workers whose brother’s body was recovered.

I was hoping to sleep in my own bed tonight. Perhaps it will be tomorrow now, but nothing is set yet.

The fire men have stopped calling me “Chris” or “Padre Chris” or “Lt. Chris.” Now they just say el capellan (chaplain). The ones who aren’t Peruvain call me el capellan peruano.

I wish to thank the Provincial administration for granting me permission to assist in this rescue mission and Paul Breslin, OFM, for covering my parish responsibilities during this short absence. I feel my presence here has been a big help to all and a big plus for the image of the fire chaplain within the Latin American fire companies. I hope to expand the image of the fire chaplain beyond that of celebrating Mass once a year.

dunnboliviaI also wish to thank my formation classmate, James Vacco, OFM, who gave me a donation at the Chapter in Maryland in early January. Not knowing what was going to happen last Thursday afternoon, I used about half of the money to buy equipment for myself Thursday morning: tent, stakes, helmet, sleeping bag, tarp, rain gear, a big plastic container for a portable Mass kit (chalice, paten, alb, chasuble, etc.). I packed everything into a footlocker to see how it would fit. Then I thought to myself, “Well, I will probably not have to use all this, but at least I am ready.” I went to the computer to check my mail and found out the USAR Peru team was on alter for this mission and they wanted me to go with them.

Tuesday, Feb. 1
Lima has confirmed that a Peruvian air force antov plane is en route to pick us up now. The antov is a smaller plane than the one we came in, so the return flight will be a bit longer. I should be back in Lima by 11 p.m. today. Once I get home, I plan on going to the shower and then to bed.

The mayor of Santa Cruz awarded medals to all of us foreign USAR team members today.

— Fr. Chris, a native of Upstate New York, has been based in Lima since 1981.