BRADENTON — Pilot Steve Hollands is accustomed to using his helicopter to lift air-conditioning units onto downtown high rise roofs, malls or hospitals.
But last month, his work duties drastically changed.
For the past four weeks, the Bradenton resident has been lifting Haiti earthquake victims out of the country into nearby Dominican Republic hospitals.
Hollands, who works for Midwest Helicopter Airways based out of Willowbrook, Ill., is assisting a private medical company with emergency evacuations from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
He and his mechanic Jeff Stonebrook, of Bowlingbrook, Ill., typically work construction jobs, but they were contracted out by MSF — the French acronym for Doctors Without Borders, an international medical humanitarian organization created by doctors and journalists in France in 1971.
The Chicago-area helicopter crew of two left for the Haiti on Jan. 19, five days after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake rocked the capital city of Port-au-Prince. They were the second aircraft crew to arrive in the city, said Midwest Vice President Rick Smith.
Normally the duo lifts air-conditioning units or fights fires out west by dumping water on them and transporting firefighters around, said Smith.
“So it was eye-opening to them because we didn’t know what we’d be getting into,” Smith said. “We thought we’d be carrying cartons of medicines and food and water, but they had us hauling patients and injured people, transporting them between hospitals and airports.”
Hollands’ wife, who teaches French at Bayshore High School, said this is her husband’s first rescue mission, and he is delighted to help those in need.
“But he also feels frustrated because he feels there is so much more he can do,” said Laura Hollands, who lives in Palma Sola Trace with her husband and daughter, Chloe, 11.
Laura Hollands said she’s lucky if she gets to talk to her husband once a week because of satellite service.
During one recent phone call, he told her the first couple of nights he and his partner slept in tents.
“Seven or eight doctors were all on air mattresses with them, wherever they could find space,” Laura Hollands said. “A few nights he had to wake up and wrap himself in mosquito netting.”
Other nights they’ve stayed in the helicopter, she said.
He told his wife that they had no idea how lucky they were.
“We take simple things for granted,” he said during a phone call last week.
“Until you see the magnitude of the devastation, people living in the streets, people jumping on cars yelling “Mange” (which translates to eat in English), people bathing in the rivers. For them, it’s just all about survival.”
Although her husband is on a three-week contract, she doesn’t know the exact date he’ll return.
“Hopefully he’ll be home next week, but we are not sure,” she said.
Smith said that’s a possibility.
“It just depends on the need,” Smith said.
Chloe Hollands said she misses her dad but understands why he is there.
“I am very proud of my brave and kind dad to be doing something so good for others, although it is very hard for me to be without him,” Chloe said.
“I can’t wait until he comes home.”