The Trauma Of Doing Rescue Work In Natural Disasters

A journalist recalls his own, and other people’s, experiences in earthquake rescue operations in Turkey.

Early in the morning of February 6, 2023, Türkiye experienced a nine-hour period that would dramatically change the lives of millions of its citizens and fill the country with deep sorrow. Twin earthquakes rocked a large region of southern Türkiye, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

In its aftermath, more than 40,000 people were dead and millions were left homeless. The devastating earthquakes, with magnitudes of 7.7 and 7.6, affected an area of 110,000 sq km, roughly the size of Bulgaria. The intensity of these massive tremors caused over 12,000 buildings to collapse and left many more severely damaged. Under the rubble, lay thousands of victims helplessly waiting to be saved. In the darkness and sub-zero temperatures, they awaited their fate. Rescue or death? Which one would come first? It’s difficult times like this that test our humanity, when the ordinary are called on to achieve the extraordinary.

Throughout the first week of the biggest search and rescue mission in human history, more than 250,000 local and international experts and volunteers converged in Southern Türkiye to dig through tons of concrete and steel with the hope of performing a miracle. Leading the mission was AFAD, Türkiye’s Disaster and Emergency Management Agency. Due to the unprecedented level of destruction spread across a wide geography, AFAD was undermanned and decided to call upon volunteers that had participated in the group’s training courses in the past. The AFAD training programme teaches participants fundamental skills such as first aid, disaster response, psychological support and evacuation training.

Betul Baykal Dinc, a 45-year-old family therapist and mother of two, had decided to apply for AFAD training after a previous earthquake raised her interest in search and rescue. To her surprise, officials at the agency immediately replied and, before she knew it, she was enrolled in classes, learning skills that would one day be called upon. That day would come on the night of February 6, when Dinc received a text message asking her to volunteer and help AFAD respond to what has been dubbed the ‘disaster of the century’. By 3 am, she was at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen Airport waiting for a flight to the disaster zone. After an 11- hour delay due to damaged runways and repeated aftershocks, she and the rest of her 100-volunteer team boarded a flight to Kahramanmaraş, the epicentre of the twin earthquakes. Upon arrival, the calm and quiet of Istanbul was replaced with the chaos and panic of the disaster zone’s ‘Ground Zero’.

No amount of training can truly prepare you to deal with the challenges on the ground once you enter a disaster zone. Beyond the death and destruction and tangible negative impact of a catastrophe is the intangible trauma by which victims are forever scarred. As a survivor of the 1999 Izmit Earthquake that claimed the lives of 18,000 people, I still vividly remember the horrific serenade of glass breaking, car alarms sounding, cement grinding and the eerie hum that resonated from the bowels of the earth when the 7.4 magnitude tremor rocked the Istanbul metropolitan area.

The other nightmare that I’ll always take with me is the smell: the odour of bodies decomposing after being exposed to the elements for a prolonged period of time. Having your reality change in a matter of seconds is a surreal and humbling experience. Your mind tries to reject what your eyes register and your survival instinct only seeks a sense of safety, a feeling of normalcy. This is the mindset that many earthquake survivors are in entering their reality as rescue workers.

As Dinc arrived at the epicentre, her team was quickly deployed to a building that was repurposed as a disaster response command centre. She spotted the familiar face of Türkiye’s Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, who was trying to organise an initial response to the worst-hit areas. Once her team was called to respond in the field, the heavy presence of the Turkish military was noticeable. Members of the Bornova Gendarmerie commando battalion were some of the first on the scene. Despite the general chaos that dominated the environment, the soldiers were calmly carrying out orders and attending to the needs of the people of the town.

The first duties given to Dinc’s team were to assist the military and help organise the aid coming in. People were arriving in droves. Many had lost loved ones, some pulled from the rubble and all unable to accept what had happened to them. The team’s priority was to calm survivors and tend to their immediate medical needs. Dinc quickly attended to an elderly man who was a cancer patient, helping him receive first aid and organising the means to get him to a hospital. She said that her surroundings resembled what Armageddon might look like. But there was no time to be overwhelmed. So many people needed help that, without thinking twice, Dinc had left her husband and two kids behind to board that plane.

As Dinc’s team was hard at work, they also began to assist the soldiers in attending to survivors trapped underneath the rubble. There were many collapsed buildings in the area and each one of the piles of concrete and steel had voices calling out from beneath them for help. It resembled an ‘end of days’ scenario, she recollects. “It was extremely difficult deciding which collapsed building to work with. There were so many voices calling out and not enough of us to answer all the pleas for help. Our team did what we could and began digging through the rubble where the voices were most audible and closest to the surface,” says Dinc.

Over the next few days, her team, along with the growing military assistance, was able to pull many survivors out of the rubble. “There’s nothing more satisfying in life than knowing that you were part of an effort to save a life,” she says. The expressions of relief on the faces of survivors crawling out of concrete graves was indescribable. Each life saved was a boost of energy for the extremely exhausted teams working in the field. It’s not a 9-to-5 effort, you work until your body stops and you dig deep down inside yourself to find the energy to continue.

While watching such coverage on TV, we see many miraculous stories of people being saved. But there’s also the grim reality that for every life rescued, the majority of people pulled out from collapsed buildings have passed on. After a couple days in a disaster zone, death becomes familiar. It becomes part of your natural setting like a tree or a car. This not only impacts those that have survived the disaster but also the ones that come to respond and provide help.

As Dinc recalls her experience on the field, she tells me that what impacted her the most was the selflessness of the volunteers and the soldiers providing aid. A few of the soldiers she worked with had family in the earthquake-stricken areas. Some had relatives trapped under the rubble, some had lost family members. But all of them attended to their responsibilities despite the storm of feelings they must have been experiencing inside of them. “There was no hierarchy,” she adds. “No one cares about your status or your rank. When you’re in the field providing aid and trying to save lives, we are all equal. We are all part of something greater.”

Many of the rescue workers and volunteers who responded to the February 6 earthquakes that rocked Southern Türkiye brought hope with them. Their energy, ideals and selfless will to save lives and ease the pain of traumatised survivors will remain part of the collective memory of the people of the affected region. As these heroes slowly return to their cities and normal lives, they bring back a piece of the disaster with them that has been imprinted on their mind and heart. The sights, sounds and smells which bombarded their senses during relief efforts will be a reminder of the Armageddon they experienced.

They will forever be linked to the people they saved. They will think about those they could save and the personal belongings they found while sifting through the rubble. Who was this person? What were their hopes and dreams? Could I have saved them? These are some of the questions they will ask themselves. When they believe that they have put it all behind themselves, they’ll hear a news-presenter speaking about an earthquake striking a far-off place blaring from the TV and an unexplainable tear will run down their cheeks.

As someone who has experienced similar events, the disaster brings on a fountain of emotion. In hindsight, I probably should
have received some mental support after my earthquake experience. It still sleeps inside of me, waiting to be awoken. But, then again, working in the media desensitises feelings and sometimes makes us numb. So, I will keep my trauma and empathy as a badge of my humanity.

It’s been a tough two weeks for my country. I’ve talked to my friend, Ali, with whom I did my mandatory military service. He was from Hatay province which was the hardest-hit. I asked him “Is everyone okay?” and he answered, “My wife, child and I are all that remain of my family tree.” How do you console someone after a sentence like that? Another friend, Celal, was also an AFAD volunteer who went to Gaziantep. While he was taking part in the rescue mission, a common friend of ours whose family lived in Gaziantep couldn’t get in touch with her uncle, aunt or nieces. Celal took a small team and went to the address that she had provided him. Unfortunately, hours later he had to make the phone call and tell his friend that they had all passed away.

When I received news of the earthquake, my first reaction was to call my relatives in Adana, another one of the 10 provinces affected by the massive quakes. I feel guilty sharing the news that they are okay. These are just glimpses into the human dramas that have unfolded on a national scale across Türkiye. As the rescue mission now ends and the country heals its wounds together, the long and arduous road to recovery and rebuilding is ahead of us. The tremendous efforts of volunteers and support that has come from across the world has shown Türkiye that it is a road that it will not walk alone.

First published in Outlookindia.com

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