In the early-morning hours Thursday, New York City firefighter Joseph Downey kissed his wife and three children goodbye and stepped out of the comfort of the family's West Islip home for a journey to the hell on earth that is Haiti.
Downey, 47, is an FDNY battalion chief and a son of the legendary fire commander Ray Downey, who died on Sept. 11, 2001. He also is the joint leader of a special New York City urban search-and-rescue team tapped by the federal government that plans Friday to fly to Haiti and work to find survivors and victims of Tuesday's devastating earthquake.
Downey, with his co-leader from the New York Police Department and others in the elite 80-member unit, spent hours Thursday assembling 20 tons of supplies at a warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The unit is part of the 220-member group of firefighters and police officers known as New York Task Force One. After a send-off from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and city emergency management chief Joseph Bruno, the team drove some 70 miles to Stewart Air National Guard Base, arriving at 4 p.m.
Then the situation became a matter of hurry-up-and-wait. Military and police sources said no planes had been assigned to take the team to Haiti Thursday. So, Downey, his co-leader, NYPD Deputy Insp. Robert Lukach, and the other team members spent the night in a hotel near the base.
"I try to keep everything on an even keel right now," Downey said in an interview as he, Lukach and the team traveled in the convoy to the base. "You don't want to get too ramped up . . . you definitely have to control your emotions until the time you get on the plane."
"It is a multitude of feelings," Lukach, 47, said in a separate interview.
Ray Downey, who was among the 343 city firefighters who died on 9/11, is widely credited as the force behind a nationwide system of 28 highly trained urban search-and-rescue teams.
New York's unit was last deployed in 2008 for hurricanes Ike and Gustav. Other units from Florida and Virginia already had deployed to Haiti when the New York group got its official deployment call at about 2 a.m. Thursday.
The unit faces a mammoth job in a country that has been brought to its knees by the 7.0-magnitude quake. When the team arrives in Port-au-Prince, its members' first task will be to set up tents and a base of operations, Downey said. They packed enough food and water to sustain the team for about six days, which they hope will be long enough for a regular supply line to be established.