Unlike many people who might use their vacation time to jet off for a week of relaxation, Erick Digre, a park ranger for the San Francisco Crystal Springs Fish and Game Preserve, has used his vacation time for the past 30 years to volunteer at disaster relief operations for the American Red Cross.
Erick is one of many volunteers from the Bay Area Chapter who are ready and available to go anywhere in the country with a moment’s notice to help those in need.
"People who [volunteer for the Red Cross] do it from the bottom of their hearts,” he said. “People give up their beds and their comfort, leave family and friends and go into the middle of a disaster zone. There isn’t an organization anywhere in the world equal to the Red Cross."
Erick just returned from West, Texas, where he was helping people recover following the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion. The blast left 14 people dead, injured 200, and caused an estimated $100 million in damage to businesses, homes, a nursing home, and a school in the area.
Erick got the call to help on April 22. Just a few hours later, he was on a plane to Dallas, Texas. On a deployment to a disaster, the days are long but the work is very rewarding, he said.
"You know in your heart you're doing good,” Erick said “Every Red Cross volunteer gets a lot of 'thank yous.’ The whole community is so grateful to have us there."
As a volunteer with an Emergency Medical Technician certificate, Erick was in demand for his skills. For the first two days, he traveled to the nursing home with a nurse and a client caseworker to find out what medical equipment was lost in the explosion and determine how the Red Cross could be of assistance.
Erick heard many accounts of heroism in this small, rural community.
"There was a high school student who heard the explosion, whose grandfather was in the nursing home. He ran into the nursing home, got his grandfather out, then he texted all his friends and got them to come, and they rescued many of the elderly residences," Erick recalls.
Erick also worked at the explosion site, administering first aid to those who were allowed to return to their homes.
Erick distributed gloves, masks, and goggles to ensure no one was injured while sifting through the debris.
"You saw all types of emotions; a good majority of their homes were destroyed. The whole community seemed to want to aid their fellow town’s people and responded either by helping dig through the rubble or cooking meals or donating lost items," he said.
Erick also attended a memorial service for the 10 volunteer firefighters who died in the blast, handing out more than 700 water bottles, 300 snacks, 200 coffees, and 60 lunches to the mourners. Helping out at the memorial – which was also attended by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama – was a real honor, Erick said.
"I watched as firefighters from all across the nation reached out to the firefighters of West,” he said. “The compassion crowded the air and was palpable."
Taking time to visit and listen to the families of the bereaved was both rewarding and heartbreaking.
"We met some of the wives who had lost their husbands who were firefighters, and their kids," Erick said. "The hardest thing was seeing what the people were going through. You see what they're going through and you can't help but be moved."
Erick, a 20-year Pacifica resident, has been a volunteer for the Red Cross for 30 years. Over the past year, he has deployed five times, including twice assisting with Superstorm Sandy relief efforts as a health services volunteer. He says he is already looking forward to the next opportunity to help.