Airman answers calling

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Damon Kasberg
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is No. 1 of 3 articles in a series highlighting the accomplishments of Airmen after receiving training from the Air Force.

On a pitch black October morning in 2002, the humming of engines from an Ilyushin Il-62 commercial airliner faded as it taxied away from Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan. It doesn't get far. The jet crashed after running off the tarmac into the grass, veered into the nearby woods and burst into flames.

Within seconds of the crash alarms roared from handheld radios throughout the makeshift fire station. Aircraft down! Firefighters quickly donned their uniform and rushed out of their tents to respond to the accident. Nineteen-year-old Jesse Burkhard was among these first responders.

"When I woke up and heard plane down I was startled," recalled now Master Sgt. Burkhard, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron assistant chief of health and safety. "I didn't know what to do, but luckily I had a good crew chief ahead of me who calmed me down and got me to our truck. I had been out of technical training for a year and this was my very first deployment."

Burkhard was the lowest ranking of three assigned to the only rescue truck on the base. From the back seat he remembers seeing nothing in the darkness but a mushroom cloud of smoke and fire.

"It was the biggest fire I'd seen," he said.

As the team raced closer he could start making out the shape of the jet through thick, black smoke. A couple hundred feet away from the burning wreckage the truck's tires spun furiously, but wouldn't move another inch; it was stuck.

The firefighters exited their vehicle, threw on their remaining equipment and sprinted the rest of the way. With 75 pounds on their back they made it to the site, but their job had only just begun.

Their role on the rescue truck was to find and save people, and if necessary pull them from the danger zone, treat them, and put them safe in the hands of the emergency medical team.

"The only gear we put on is our self-contained breathing apparatus packs and masks, and we're ready to go," Burkhard said.

The team got in position, but walls of flames blocked Burkhard and the others from entering the aircraft. Instead, they performed a perimeter sweep around the jet, looking for any survivors. Of the nine individuals who boarded the aircraft that morning eight had been accounted for. The rescue team needed find one more amongst the heat, fire and explosions.

While others run from disasters, Burckhard was born to a bloodline of firefighters and knew at a young age it was his calling. He followed in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great grandfather. Originally joining the military to receive world-class firefighting training, he found more.

"The Air Force has one of the best fire academies in the world," Burkhard said. "That's why I joined. I thought I would only stay four years to receive all my certifications, but I love being in the Air Force and what the fire department is in the Air Force."

From the beginning of Burkhard's career the training he's received from the Air Force and mentorship from NCOs has provided him with the skills to confront disasters and life-threatening emergencies.

"The training never stops," he said. "It starts at tech school, where you learn the basics and that training is always there. Now it's great to bring the experience and knowledge I've gained from my career to the Airmen. It can mean life or death if we're not fast enough connecting a hose or can't get water to the line in a certain time limit."

It was this training that allowed him and his team to locate and recover that final survivor 13 years ago.

"It was a scary situation, but we found everyone who was on board," he said. "It's a sigh of relief knowing everyone is safe. I've known firefighters who weren't able to get everyone out. I couldn't imagine the feeling."

With all the survivors safe, the rescue team focused their efforts on supporting the other firefighters. U.S. Air Force and Kyrgyzstan firefighters worked side by side extinguishing the raging flames.

Exhausted, the men finally caught their breath after four hours of dragging fire hoses, switching air tanks and dodging explosions, and as the final embers were quenched, the sun's light began to break through the darkness.