PERRY, Ga. (WUSA9) -- The most elite urban search and rescue team in the world is from right here in our backyard, Virginia Task Force 1.
When others are running from a disaster, these 210 men and women from Fairfax are running in.
Stephanie Leland is a Rescue Specialist. She has been doing this for three years, and has been a Fairfax firefighter for six years. She is one of the 17 women who make up the crew.
Virginia Task Force 1 recently underwent a highly realistic disaster training for a week at a camp in Perry, Georgia. From a simulation of Hurricane Katrina, to an eerily realistic post-earthquake Metro train explosion, they have undergone several exercises to hone their skills. WUSA9 met Leland at a simulated bridge collapse exercise. She explains what the crew is dealing with, "The bridge fell on these cars and they're unstable so we've been going through and searching the cars. And we had to enter in through this car and tunnel our way all the way through to the car at the end, and then we could climb up top and check the cars on top."
This rescue is intricate and long. Even though it is an exercise, the cars and concrete could shift and come crushing down at any time, so the crew works on shoring them up. Leland works to make the materials, "We will do whatever's necessary to extricate victims, whether it's cut through cars which we've been doing here, breach through walls, concrete, wood structures."
Leland says each person on the team is highly skilled and each has their own strengths, "I may not be as strong and fast, since I'm smaller, sometimes it's easier I can get through places where they can't get into."
With windshields smashed out, and some of the cars roofs crushed, there is just a pathway of a couple of inches, surrounded by shards of jagged glass, for the crew to crawl through. At the end of this long line, paid "victim" Steve Valakos of Macon, Georgia waits. Valakos has been in a car for hours, waiting for the rescuers to reach him. It is a careful operation to carry him through several cars on a stretcher. He says he has a new appreciation for what these men and women do, "I was comfortable, because they're putting their own lives too, to save your own."
Leland and the rest could not do it without people like Valakos, and without training exercises like these. Leland says these exercises are critical, "I've learned a lot, I've seen a lot of things that I haven't seen and you really get to test your skills."