The British rescue team was among the first international disaster crews to rush to the aid of earthquake survivors in Türkiye last month after powerful twin tremors left the country’s southern regions devastated.
After Ankara made an international call for help as part of its level-4 alert after the quakes, a team of 77 people, including doctors, firefighters, and engineers, from UK International Search and Rescue (ISAR) was deployed in Hatay, Türkiye’s southernmost province and one of the worst hit by the disaster.
Their selfless acts to save as many victims as possible from under the rubble of collapsed buildings left an indelible mark for many in the country who will never forget viral footage of the team risking their lives as they crawled through a tunnel they dug for 17 hours to get to possible survivors.
It was as if they had entered the hearts of the Turkish people through that tunnel, as the video almost immediately triggered an outpour of gratitude for their heroism.
David O’Neill, team leader of the UK International Search and Rescue team (UK-ISAR), told Anadolu that the crew was “lucky enough to have a big deployment” in Türkiye.
“We were trained for such disasters,” O’Neill said upon his return to London. Still, going to such a familiar country and “seeing the scale of the devastation, I think, was a shock to everyone.”
Once there, the team was able to rescue some of the victims alive on their very first day on the ground.
“And of course, that lifts the spirit of the whole team because we deploy for that one rescue … It makes it all worthwhile. So having that morale lifted, I think then kept the motivation of the team for them to continue through 10 days, and still rescuing people even six, seven days after the event was just magical for us.”
In total, O’Neill and his team rescued a total of 11 people during their search operations. “UK-ISAR had their highest number of rescues in any mission in in our 30-year history,” noted the team captain.
The team also engaged with the local community and the Turkish rescuers, as well as other organizations on the ground.
“Where we got our best intelligence from was working with people from the area that are on the ground, directing us to where there’s been reports of voices heard or movement heard. And that’s where we had most of our success,” he recounted.
In one instance, the team had to dig a tunnel through the remains of collapsed structures for a relatively safe route to where they thought people might be trapped.
“It was just a long, painstaking operation of course, during which there were aftershocks whilst in my teams were in there,” O’Neill said as he recounted the ordeal.
The building where they began tunneling was less damaged than the one next to it, where the survivors were thought to be, giving the rescuers a fairly safe starting point.
“We’ve then got aftershocks, which means everyone’s got to get back out until that’s settled, and we know what the consequences of the aftershock are.
“So, we took a few videos and it was actually our doctor, Dr. Malcolm Russell, who travelled with us. He took that video once we’d already established and stabilized the casualty. He then took that video to show the journey through from the building next door and it has gone viral,” said O’Neill.
That footage helped show the conditions in which they had to work, he said, adding that he got 1.8 million hits and appreciative comments from Turkish people when he shared it on his personal LinkedIn account.
“That was really good, for the team to hear and see these messages,” asserted the rescuer, who underlined that their relationship with Turkish teams would continue.
The team was also invited back to Hatay to talk about their experiences. “And whilst now it’s probably a little bit too soon, that’s something we’ll definitely want to do,” concluded O’Neill.
Steve Boulton, firefighter at the London Fire Brigade who also went to Türkiye after the earthquakes, said it was very hard to explain the scale of the disaster in the region “if you haven’t seen it firsthand.”
Boulton was tasked with remaining at the base of operations to test equipment and get everything ready in case it was needed later on.
“There’ll be numerous moments I don’t forget, I can’t really think of one defining moment from it. I’ve been to Turkey quite a lot in the past on holiday. It was just a honor for myself to be able to be involved,” he explained.
Attributing their success on the field to strong teamwork, Boulton also expressed his pleasure to help the British teams’ extraordinary rescue efforts.
The death toll from the devastating earthquakes that struck Türkiye has risen to 45,089, the country’s disaster management agency, AFAD, said early on Wednesday.
On Feb. 6, magnitude 7.7 and 7.6 quakes struck 11 provinces – Adana, Adiyaman, Diyarbakir, Elazig, Hatay, Gaziantep, Kahramanmaras, Kilis, Malatya, Osmaniye, and Sanliurfa.
More than 13 million people in Türkiye have been affected by the quakes.
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