Shoulders of giants: how the dream almost became reality
Updated: Jun 29, 2019
A project as ambitious as the fire truck expedition cannot be successful without a team of very talented and dedicated professionals.
When the idea of the fire truck expedition first came to me, I envisioned the actor James Gandolfini and I driving a single fire engine from Europe across Asia to Nepal. Later, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes was slated to join our trip. The route turned out to be too dangerous and so we resolved to ship the fire engine to India and drive it across the subcontinent before reaching Nepal. This was not so much a humanitarian mission as it was an opportunity for James Gandolfini to escape the crushing level of fame he had attained as a result of the popularity of the HBO television series The Sopranos. An overland expedition with just one fire engine across two Third World countries is a logistical challenge. Throw in two A-list celebrities and things become infinitely more challenging. To support the expedition, I asked a few Navy SEAL friends if they'd tag along in a support vehicle. Why SEALs? Because if anything were to go wrong, which was bound to be the case, these highly-trained professionals are prepared to help overcome the situation. The SEALs' can-do spirit, camaraderie and level-headedness would be tremendous assets to our undertaking. Jim and Ran agreed with my assessment.
This was the birth of what eventually turned into the fire truck expedition to Nepal, which at its height counted up to a dozen fire fighting and earthquake response vehicles, dozens of VIPs, Navy SEALs, diplomats, journalists, mechanics, medics, and, of course, fire fighters. The person I asked to run the expedition's logistics is Russell Brice, the New Zealand-born mountaineer and expedition organizer. To have Russ on board along with the SEALs was a tremendous boost to the expedition's credibility and to my own confidence level that this mammoth undertaking would become a success.
U.S. Ambassador Scott DeLisi, at the time still posted to Kampala in Uganda, agreed to be the expedition's official leader after he reached retirement. Having Scott's leadership skills and impressive track-record of being a three-time ambassador in some of the most challenging Third World countries would calm sponsors' and clients' fears that this was just a big extravaganza of "a bunch of drinking buddies" as the program director of WQED television station in Pittsburgh, Darryl-Ford Williams cautioned.
Our mission had evolved several times over the span of five years. From being a "simple" road trip to a public awareness platform to alert people of Nepal of the likelihood of a massive earthquake, and on to becoming a national tourism promotion campaign. Most of all, however, the expedition was -and continued to be- a way to get much-needed fire engines to Nepal.
As the fire truck expedition steadily grew -albeit on paper and in my imagination- the list of impressive would-be participants got longer. Impressed by the undertaking's leadership, several celebrities and their friends inquired about the possibility to supporting the expedition, either by tagging along or by social media support. A lot of those early arrangements were informal (the drinking buddies element did play role after all) but a lifetime of dealing with high-profile personalities had taught me to always expect the unexpected...and to never underestimate the power of good fortune.
What none of the expedition's team members, leaders or I, its founder, imagined is that as the expedition's profile grew exponentially, so did the concern of a foreign government that our project could become a way to draw intense international media attention to some very dirty geopolitical games.
The fire truck expedition is still being planned, despite several considerable setbacks. However, whether it will eventually become a reality in Nepal or in another country now depends on our team's ability to outmaneuver those parties interested in derailing our project. Time will tell what the outcome will be...stay tuned!