GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The scene in Gaylord Friday night was surreal: homes were flattened, commercial buildings were peeled open and vehicles were tossed around like toys. Grand Rapids Fire Captain Josh Veldkamp has trained for these kinds of disasters. 

“But it’s definitely different when you have real hazards and real lives that are on the line. People that you’re looking for,” Veldkamp said.

He was one of three Grand Rapids firefighters who joined a task force of first responders from around the state, all with specialized training to handle large disasters like the one that happened in Gaylord Friday night.

Their first assignment was search and rescue efforts along the M-32 business corridor.

“Cars flipped over, walls of buildings collapsed, some other buildings completely on the ground and other ones that are completely untouched and intact,” Veldkamp said.

Fortunately, no one was trapped.

The team then moved to a nearby trailer park where two people died to look for additional victims.

“So you go through there (and) you find trailers that are perfectly intact with no real damage. Then you start seeing cars that are flipped over, (and) trees through the middle of these trailers. Then there’s an area where trailers are totally ripped off their frame and stacked on top of each other,” Veldkamp said describing the wreckage. “We had roofs of trailers that were up in the trees and trees that are snapped off halfway through.“

Veldkamp got the call as a member of Michigan – Task Force 1. The Urban Search and Rescue Task team is made up of rescue and medical specialists from around the state and trained to handle a wide range of disasters.

Eight other West Michigan first responders with Task Force One along with the three Grand Rapids firefighters were sent to Gaylord.

“We had some structural specialists… rescue specialists, K-9 search dogs, EMS professionals, (and) doctors who went along with us,” Veldkamp said.

Task Force 1 is part of a nationwide network of regional rescue teams that respond to disasters like the Gaylord tornado.

“It’s more people that can respond to the scene and assist in ways that can’t be met by the local municipality,” Veldkamp said.

And those services could prove invaluable if West Michigan is hit by a disaster.

“Like if we did have a large building collapse here, we would exhaust our resources in the city quite quickly and we would need these other assets that are available to us throughout the state,” Veldkamp said.

Task Force 1 members have responded to several disasters, from the Midland Floods in 2020 to Hurricanes Irma in 2017, Florence in 2018, Dorian in 2019 and Ida in 2021.