SPRING VALLEY, Calif. (KGTV) - A local firefighter who organized a history-making first responder mission to Ukraine is back home.
Video shows Eric Hille, a firefighter with San Miguel Fire & Rescue, along with 10 other firefighters, combing through the rubble of a bombed out home outside Kyiv.
Nearby was the family of a missing father.
"They were so emotional the whole time we were there, and they were grateful for us being there,” said Hille.
Scenes like this played out over and over for Task Force Joint Guardian, Hille's two-week mission inside Ukraine.
Calling on contacts in Ukraine, he and his friends got approval from the government for a first-of-its-kind deployment of firefighters to a war zone. The nonprofit Direct Relief International funded the mission with a $50,000 grant, paying for everything from airfare and food, to search and rescue equipment.
For eight days, Hille and his team, hailing from the US, Germany and Australia, worked outside Kyiv, distributing donated equipment and joining search and recovery efforts in apartment buildings and homes. His toughest day emotionally was the fifth day.
At one home, after crews cut through the rubble, Hille found the body of a man in his living room. Neighbors had heard him screaming for days, but crews couldn't get to him, because the area was under Russian control.
Hours before that search, at the home of that missing father, the team recovered the watch and part of the necklace he had been wearing. The heat of the blast made it impossible to locate his remains.
“We were able to at least hand them the watch and part of the necklace we found. They broke down and cried. It hit us all hard. That's what we were there for, to bring closure to families,” said Hille.
Hille's team also spent four days in Kharkiv, not far from the Russian border and less than two miles from Russian troops. They trained Ukrainian firefighters, who typically have no medical training. One day during lunch outside a fire station, there was a blast nearby.
“Loud explosion right next to the station. It shook the station,” said Hille.
Hille, a twice-deployed Army veteran, says during that incident, and during the constant blaring of air raid sirens, he kept his focus on the mission at hand.
“You just keep your mind off of it. Sadly, the Ukrainians are used to it … They are so resilient. Their cities are destroyed but they continue to work together to clean up the community,” said Hille.
Hille says his mission isn’t complete.
“I will be back, because there's a lot of work that needs to be done … It’s amazing that 11 firefighters who had never met each other, other than Zoom meetings, achieved what we did,” said Hille.
Hille says Ukraine's Interior Minister called the group trailblazers, paving the way for other countries to send first responder help.
As for Hille's group, he's planning a second mission that will likely head out within a month. It will include at another San Miguel firefighter. Hille will sit that one out, but says he will join a future mission.
An online fundraiser has been set up to help with Hille’s future missions.