'We would like to see if the family is still alive'

US firefighters in Israel worried about fate of Be’eri families who hosted them

Emergency Volunteers Project members in Ashkelon bolster rescue services during war, but unable to visit kibbutz that lost over 100 members in Hamas attack

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Firefighters put out a blaze after a rocket strike in Ashkelon during the 2023 Israel-Gaza war (courtesy EVP)
Firefighters put out a blaze after a rocket strike in Ashkelon during the 2023 Israel-Gaza war (courtesy EVP)

American firefighters volunteering in Ashkelon during the war said on Tuesday that they were trying to reach Kibbutz Be’eri, which opened its doors to them during a previous visit they made to Israel, months before the October 7 Hamas massacre.

“We came over in May,” said Samuel, a Fort Worth, Texas, firefighter. “We went to Netivot, and then from there they sent us to a makeshift station at Be’eri.”

They had flown to Israel at that time as part of the Emergency Volunteers Project, a network of American first responders and over 700 firefighters that stands ready to support Israel in times of crisis. In May, Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad fought a four-day clash in the Gaza Strip.

“We were watching them come over from both Gaza and the Iron Dome,” said Samuel of the rockets launched in May by terrorists in Gaza and the Israeli interceptions.

The US firefighters asked that their last names not be used.

While they were in Be’eri, families on the kibbutz went out of their way to make the guests feel at home.

“They invited us into their homes and made food for us,” said Samuel. “I don’t remember everybody’s name, but we went to their house and they had desserts and food for us and got to hang out with those people.”

File: Israeli soldiers walk past houses destroyed by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Be’eri on the Gaza border, October 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

On the morning of October 7, over 100 Hamas terrorists stormed the kibbutz, slaughtering residents and taking others hostage. The bodies of at least 103 civilians have been found at Be’eri.

“We would like to see if the family that invited us into their home are still alive,” Samuel said. “Everybody was so kind to us and nice to us.”

As of Tuesday, they had not been able to arrange a visit to the kibbutz. Anyone trying to reach the Gaza border area – now a closed military zone – needs IDF permission and an armed military escort.

Six days after the Hamas assault that killed over 1,400 Israelis, 23 American firefighters had already landed in Israel and gone through a quick refresher course at the Israel Fire and Rescue Academy in Rishon Lezion. By Sunday, teams had joined their Israeli counterparts in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv area, and Ashkelon.

Another 60 firefighters are on standby in the US.

James, also from Fort Worth, discovered the EVP in 2014 after a group of volunteers held a ceremony upon returning from Israel during Operation Protective Edge. He went to Israel in 2016 to help battle forest fires in Haifa, and in 2018 when incendiary balloons from Gaza started hundreds of fires.

US and Israeli firefighters in Ashkelon during the 2023 Israel-Gaza war (courtesy EVP)

He said there were two reasons that he hopped on a plane to Israel during a war.

“One is just on a base level, adventure as a fireman,” he explained. “We want the adventure and the excitement, and it doesn’t get any more so than doing this. On a higher level, it was something I felt morally, being capable of doing what I was doing back home, I could apply those skills here. I felt this is where I need to be.”

The Americans are fully integrated into Israeli teams and are using Israeli gear.

“They are certified Israeli firefighters in every sense of the word,” said EVP spokesman Eitan Charnoff.

Trucks in Ashkelon are currently answering calls with two Americans and two Israelis on them.

“Even if they don’t speak Hebrew, they all speak the same firefighter language,” said Charnoff. “They’re familiar with the gear, and they know how to work.”

For now, said James, it been relatively quiet in Ashkelon, a beach city of over 130,000 that has seen many of its residents flee since the war started.

“The calls we’ve been on a lot of the time is just basically ducking out of rockets and the Iron Dome,” he continued. “It has been eerily slow since we got here. We’ve only had a couple of calls. We had a rocket strike, an apartment, and we went for that call and helped do a search of the building. Other than that, it’s been eerily quiet.”

The visit was especially meaningful for James, who finished his two-year-long conversion to Judaism just before flying to Israel.

“I finished mikveh and everything two weeks before I came,” he said, referring to the ritual bath that is part of the final process.

Adi Zahavi founded the Emergency Volunteers Project in 2009 after serving as an overwhelmed first responder during the Second Intifada and the Second Lebanon War. He set out to prepare willing Americans to help in future crises, from wars to terrorist attacks to natural disasters. Training sessions are held in the United States and Israel.

American firefighters in Ashkelon during the 2023 Israel-Gaza war (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“The contribution is enormous, both morally and operationally,” said Zahavi. “Morally, it shows the firefighters in Israel the true brotherhood of firefighting. It’s a statement that shows you’re not alone.

“On the operational side, it gives us the ability to increase the array of teams that are responding to incidents, and lets the Israeli firefighters have the ability to take an hour or two of rest, then come back to action.”

The mixed teams allow Israel to deploy more trucks and also enables Israeli firefighters to answer call-ups to the military reserves.

“I wanted to come here and free somebody up so they could go do the real work over in Gaza, because I know, obviously, that’d be very personal,” said Cameron from Kansas City. “It was very personal during 9/11, and we got a lot of support from all over the world, and I know how much that would mean to me if that happened to us and they could free me up and I could go take out some justice.

“So I wanted to be able to give that to the Israeli people.”

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