The daily drudgery of work can make anyone dream of escaping to a tropical island, in the middle of nowhere, soft warm breezes gently swaying in the palm trees, and nothing but blue ocean as far as the eye can see. For Mark Eggerich, his fantasy of escaping from his work environment had to be different, because that was his work environment.
Mark started working on Johnston Atoll Island in June of 2002. The island, Det 1 (detachment 1) of the 15th Air Base Wing under Hickam AFB in Honolulu, best known as a weapons and chemical munitions storage site for the United States military, was in the process of being restored to its natural habitat.
When the island was finished, it would be turned back over to the division of fish and wildlife as an animal refuge.
“That’s who they kind of borrowed it from in the twenties, so the idea was to give it back to them in basically the same condition as it was received in, or as close as we could get it,” Mark said.
Mark first became interested in working on the island after talking to Dave Law, a friend of Mark’s, who had been working on the island. The two had corresponded with each other while Law was on the island, and Mark had shown interest off and on about seeking employment there.
“It can be kind of hard to get a job there, but one day I found Raytheon’s website and saw an opening for a vehicle mechanic, so I applied online. One of the questions on the application was if you knew anyone who worked for or had worked for Raytheon. I put down yes, Dave Law. Come to find out the person on Johnston Island that was running the motor pool, Dan Fukuoka, had actually been hired by and worked under Dave Law,” Mark said.
Mark’s past automotive background in his dad’s car dealership, Eggerich Chevrolet, and his experience with working with Snowy Ridge Trucking, where he was a driver and mechanic, helped him to obtain a position on the island. In June of 2002, he arrived on the island to become a light vehicle mechanic.
A year later, one of the heavy equipment mechanics quit, and Mark decided to apply for that job. Although Mark had already worked on the island for some time, he had to go through the complete hiring process again, which included filling out the application and putting together a new resume.
“Everything in a big company revolves around your resume. It’s not like around here, where people know you and know what you can do. I had to show them why I thought I could handle the job,” Mark said.
Mark worked as a heavy equipment mechanic for six months. Before this time, the work on the island revolved around destroying weapon munitions and cleaning up chemical storage sites. One group of people who worked for the Washington Demilitarization Company (WDC) worked in the JACADS (Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System) plant, destroying the bombs.
The Raytheon group’s responsibilities were to keep the island running for the people who worked in the plant.
“We were called Base Operations Support (BOS). It was just like running a little town. We were in charge of the housing, electricity, water, communications, television, garbage disposal, transportation, and the sewer plant,” Mark said.
When Mark arrived on the island, all the weapons had already been destroyed. Now began the task of cleaning up the clean-up sites to EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards.
“They actually started to run the inside of the plant through the incinerators that had originally destroyed the weapons. That was how they made sure that there was absolutely nothing left. When they found any area still contaminated, even slightly, they had to make sure that it was completely cleaned up. Bunkers that held munitions are still there, but they are cemented over and closed up,” Mark said.
During Mark’s last six months with Raytheon, he worked on everything from 90-ton cranes to 55 thousand pound forklifts, container carriers to semi trucks.
At the end of those six months, Raytheon’s contract was up and the work they had come to the island to do was finished.
“That’s when basically the island cleared out. All the plant people left. Then a company called CH2M Hill was the main company in charge of the demolition of the island, to completely obliterate human signs on the place, to clean it up and finish it off,” Mark said.
CH2M Hill allowed the people already on the island to apply first. They needed very specific jobs filled for the last six months of demolition to downsize the operations.
“We had to have mechanics, water, power and sewage specialists there; fire department and medical personnel on hand; food personnel to prepare three meals a day for the 150 or so people that were on the island at the beginning of the demolition process. We just kind of tore the place down around ourselves,” Mark said.
Mark was one of the mechanics and was also in charge of making sure the generators continued to run once the power plant was torn down.
“When I first started to run the generators, after they shut the power plant down in February, I had 24 generators I had to take care of. Like, one ran the mess hall and another huge one ran the cold storage building, the barracks, apartments, motor pool. As each building started to be torn down, we jerked the generator out and we were done with that one,” Mark said.
Towards the end, as everything else was torn down, the remaining people lived in three 24-unit semi permanent apartment buildings. The buildings had originally come from Alaska, where they were built to house the clean-up crew that worked on the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. Once they were no longer needed, they were loaded onto barges and sent to Johnston Island.
“They were originally called the redwoods, because they were painted red when they first arrived,” Mark said.
Mark left the island on the second to the last day of human occupation.
“On the morning I left, we got up at five in the morning. We had already emptied out our rooms. We were down to a mattress on the floor and our suitcases and air conditioners the last night. When we got up at five, we packed what was left, yanked our mattresses out and put them in a container that was going on a ship to Honolulu to be dumped in a dump. Then we had to yank all of our air conditioners out and drain all the Freon and oil out,” Mark said.
“As our group was waiting for the plane, they were mashing the last three apartment buildings down. The people who stayed that last night really roughed it,” Mark said.
Living and working on the island was an experience Mark really enjoyed.
The weather on the island was hot and humid. In the coldest parts of winter, January and February, the temperature would dip down into the 70s at night.
“I wore jeans on the way there, and put them on when I left to come home, other than that I wore shorts. Toward the end we had to wear jeans around demolition sites for safety. It’s also the most humid place I had ever been. It is humid all the time. The air conditioner was never turned off. When I came home for two weeks, I left it turned on. Otherwise everything would be so rusted when I got back,” Mark said.
Shopping and auxiliary operations were also located on the island. Except for the last six months, the island had a Base Exchange (BX, similar to a Target or Wal-Mart), hairdressers and barbers, and library with videos and DVDs to use.
All health services were also located on the island. Routine medications, however, had to be mailed in from other pharmacies, as that kind of medication wasn’t kept there.
“Because we were 800 miles from a full hospital, preventative care was a must. We had an eye clinic, doctors and dentists. Everyone also had a full physical before arriving on the island. One guy had a heart attack, a real mild one, and they had to medivac him out. It was more than eight hours from the time they put the call in to come get him to the time he got to the hospital,” Mark said.
Recreational services were plentiful. Located on the island was a physical fitness center, with indoor basketball courts, weight room and racquetball courts. The island also offered an Olympic sized swimming pool, nine-hole golf course, indoor and outdoor movie theaters, a remote control vehicle racetrack, and bowling.
With all the water surrounding the island, many of the recreational activities planned were water related. Snorkeling and SCUBA instructions were given, and sailboats, powerboats and six person outrigger canoes were available for use. The local “Ohana Kalama Canoe Club” competed annually in a race in Hawaii.
The club members would hold auctions to help finance the trip, but most money came out of their own pockets to compete. All other activities on the island were provided free of charge.
“We even had our own radio station KJVR on island, when I first got there, that people could volunteer to be the DJ on their time off. Our MWR (morale welfare and recreation) staff was very active in trying to keep people occupied on a small remote island,” Mark said.
Events were planned for island inhabitants to participate in. Fun run/walks, fishing trips, and athletic competitions were popular. Special shows and performers were also brought in to entertain.
Cars and trucks, except for those used for business, were not allowed. Instead, golf carts were used to get around. The speed limit was only 25 miles on the island.
All employees have their housing, phone, cable, and electric provided. Food, served in a large mess hall, was also provided. Fresh fruits and vegetables were flown in weekly. Prime rib, steak, and smoked chops were regular supper fare.
“The only thing we needed money for was the little extras that we needed. We had a liquor store, and we could buy things at the exchange,” Mark said.
Safety on the island was always a top priority for both human and animal inhabitants. EPA experts were on hand at all times to ensure that everything was done to very exacting standards.
“If you spilled a quart of oil on the ground, you had to call HAZMAT, because it needed to be cleaned up properly. They were very picky,” Mark said.
Many of the buildings, built in the 50s to 70s, were filled with asbestos. While they were being torn down, the buildings and debris had to be wetted down, and demolition workers had to be in full tyvek suits, with respirators. The area was taped off and only those involved in the demolition were allowed near the site.
Not only were the humans protected, but also the animals. All workers had to be very careful about endangering any of the animals. Mark remembers a time when a truck had sat for about a month. During that time, a bird had made its nest on the truck. The truck could not be moved until the eggs inside the nest were hatched and the bird was done using it.
“There were fish and wildlife service people on the island at all times. One part of the beach was roped off, because they thought a turtle had laid eggs there. Turned out there wasn’t any eggs, but they would rather have erred on the side of the animals,” Mark said.
The protection given to the employees was not only from the demolition, but also from themselves and each other.
“During a briefing, before leaving, we were told of two very important rules. No fighting allowed and never go on the runway. Either offense could get you thrown off the island immediately. You would be escorted back to Hawaii and left there. Getting home was your responsibility then,” Mark said.
One man was kicked off the island for trying to hit law enforcement personnel. If the fight had been between two individuals, both would have been thrown off the island because of the zero tolerance policy.
The second rule, no one allowed on the runway, was also for safety. Planes landing could easily crash because of debris left on the runway. Medical facilities were too far away for injured personnel to be properly cared for, and a crash on the runway could close it down, limiting the islands connection to the mainland.
“Even when we went on the runway to repair something, it was strictly controlled. We had to get permission to go on and had to log the time we were there. All vehicles had to be inspected before they went on the runway to make sure nothing would fall off and damage a plane,” Mark said.
The hardest part about being on the island for Mark was being away from his family. His wife, Shelly, and his stepdaughters, Sierra and Samantha (Sam), were not allowed to live with him on the island.
“There are no children or pets on the island. Everyone there had something to do. No one was there just for fun. If there wasn’t anything for you to do, then you went home. When people got laid off, away they went. Zero unemployment,” Mark said.
Mark was able to stay in touch with his family due to technology. Telephone calls, email and instant messaging allowed the family to talk when they wanted to.
“We had really good internet service that was really fast. The phone service was really great too,” Mark said.
Mark was also able to come home every four months for two weeks at a time.
“Once Shelly and I went back early and stayed in Waikiki on the Island of Oahu for four days. We also took the girls to Honolulu once during my two weeks off the island. It afforded us some nice vacations that we normally wouldn’t of had,” Mark said.
Home at last – almost
Mark left the island in June of 2004 to return home for good. He was barely home a month, when an offer too good to resist came his way. One of the supervisors on Johnston is now a supervisor for base support on Ascension Island, an Air Force base located in the South Atlantic, between South America and Africa. The former supervisor thought he would be perfect as the lead supervisor in the motor pool.
“It’s quite a promotion and I felt I just couldn’t pass it up. Some of the people who were on Johnston are also on Ascension, so it will be nice to know someone there,” Mark said.
“And I told him one year, one year, and then he’s home. We miss him, but he just couldn’t pass this up,” Shelly said.
With support like that, when Mark gets fed up with work, instead of a tropical island, he dreams of cornfields, soft breezes and friends as far as the eye can see.