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Gruesome, technical work: How an earthquake search and rescue mission is conducted

Rob Davis, a retired firefighter, says a collapsed building can be a “hostile and horrific” place to be trapped.

People who are currently buried under rubble in Turkey may experience traumatic injuries, hunger and thirst, as well as sub-zero temperatures and dusty conditions. There is also the possibility of water bursting from burst water mains or a fire consuming their bodies.

It is Mr Davis’s responsibility to get them out.

Today, the 52-year old will travel to Turkey with SARAID (Search and Rescue Assistance in Disasters), along with other members.


He’s witnessed many disasters over his 20-year tenure with SARAID, including the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Sri Lanka’s 2010 and 2021 earthquakes, Haiti’s 2010 and 2021 earthquakes, the 2020 Beirut blast, the Mozambique floods of 2000, and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan.

Sky News’ Mr. Davis said that the scale of these natural disasters is shocking to anyone who hasn’t experienced them firsthand.

“You can literally drive down roads, and buildings have been torn apart. It is clear to see the effects that this has on survivors, who are scared and in shock and don’t know where to go next.

More Than 5,200 people killed – Live updates following the Turkey-Syria earthquake

Image Rob Davis (SARAID team leader).

Reaching the trapped

The devastation caused by the wars in Syria and Turkey is immense. According to the World Health Organisation, 23 million people have been affected. They believe deaths could reach more than 20,000.

This makes coordination an essential part of the job. SARAID will coordinate other international search-and-rescue teams. They will also be carrying out assessments of buildings. This includes assessing what the building was used for at the time, who would have been inside, the damage done, and how likely people are to survive.

Teams prioritize buildings that are near a lot of people at the time of the earthquake.

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Rescuers rescue children from the rubble using their naked hands

The search begins. Search dogs, sensitive sound equipment, ground penetrating radar, and drones will be used by the teams.

Davis stated that they have had surprising success by “using your own senses to inspect a building”.

“In Pakistan, we saved an elderly man by calling for silence and listening. We found him tapping under the rubble.”

Mr Davis stated that rescuers will drill a pilot hole in order to locate trapped persons and then use drills to drill through concrete using disc cutters, heavy breaching equipment and drills. Once the rescuers have extracted the victim, they will then transfer them to the medical team for treatment and assessment.

Image: Adana, Turkey. Pic: AP

The “window of survival”

As time goes by, survival chances decrease. There are many factors that can affect people’s chances.

“Is the victim traumatically hurt? This will impact the duration of survival. Is their void stable? Are they going to suffer more injuries and collapse from the aftershock?

“The weather conditions are massive – it’s very cold and hypothermia can set in for some people. Food and water shortages.

It’s the rule that threes are enough, isn’t it? For lack of oxygen, it takes three minutes to die. Three days are required for water shortages. Thirty days is for food.

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Rescuers race to rescue survivors

Continue reading:

Anger, frustration and search for lost relatives

What’s an aftershock? And why are mass land slides now possible?

WHO warns that death toll could rise up to more than 22,000

Davis stated that the “window for survivability” is usually five to ten days. The national emergency management agency, in this instance the Turkish government, will decide when the search-and-rescue phase will end.

Teams may be asked to help the deceased and return them to their families after that event is over.

Mother “just wanted her children back”

It can be difficult to communicate the decisions they make about who should receive assistance.

Mr. Davis recalls a 2005 scene in Pakistan. “One afternoon, I heard a young mother beating on my chest. She said her children were trapped underneath the building. Would we rescue them?” Through an interpreter, I was forced to ask a difficult question: “I’m sorry to hear that, but are your children still alive or deceased?”

“And she said, ‘they’re alive, they can hear them’, so we asked for her to guide us to the building. The children were dead when we arrived at the building.

“She wanted her children back and she didn’t fault me.

“We receive this at every major military deployment. Sometimes we have to be sensitive but strong enough to say “I’m sorry, this is not the time to retrieve dead bodies.” “I’m here to find people who are still alive.

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Britain sends rescue team to Turkey

Working under ‘gruesome conditions

The conditions in which rescuers must work are extremely difficult. After the Haiti earthquake of 2010, Mr. Davis spent 15 hours working to rebuild a school. The bodies of 50 children between five and eleven years old were surrounded them as they searched for survivors.

“People were killed in mass under these buildings, and they are still there. As horrendous as this sounds, they are beginning to decay.

“The smell of death was quite horrible.”

Two days after the earthquake, the SARAID team will arrive at Turkey. It is part of the 76 specialists, four rescue dogs, and search dogs that were sent by the UK government.

Mr Davis stated that it is likely that rescues will continue into next week and that they will be available “24 hours per day”.

He said, “If there are people available, we’ll find them with our skill set and the equipment that we have.”


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