The media coverage of the devastation caused by the Turkey earthquakes did not prepare the Israeli search-and-rescue team for the shocking reality on the ground. Entire apartment buildings in ruins, layers upon layers of concrete, with the personal belongings of the deceased strewn about.
I arrived in Turkey on Wednesday—two days after a major earthquake decimated entire neighborhoods, which together with its hundreds of aftershocks has killed more than 20,000 people—to join the IDF Home Front Command’s search and rescue team, led by IDF Col. Golan Vach. The team—consisting of 500 people—had been working non-stop since Tuesday, racing against time in winter conditions. No one had stopped to eat or sleep, despite the fact that they had been at it for over 48 hours.
By early Wednesday morning, they had already managed to rescue several people, including a two-year-old child and a 23-year-old woman, and were working on rescuing a husband and wife in their forties. In other areas, members of the Israeli delegation had managed to locate signs of life—a knock or a cry for help.
Every once in a while, all equipment is turned off and all work ceased to create absolute silence, in order to hear more possible survivors. The moment a survivor is located is marked by euphoria, but also despair. It’s one thing to find someone alive, but another to extract them from the rubble intact.
According to Gil, a 37-year-old reservist and father of two, the hardest part is coming across a situation that reminds one of home.
“It’s very hard to work on rescuing a child. There was one trapped here and the locals who worked on the rescue were at first afraid to go in. They asked for help, and I went in together with an officer, who then saw the trapped baby. It’s very hard to see something like that,” he explained.
“At first, I only saw the baby’s legs, and thought he was dead. I gently touched his leg and he moved. He cried and I cried with him, and then I tried to calm him down. It’s one thing to see trapped adults, but a whole other thing to see trapped babies. It was too much. I stepped outside. As an engineer, I understood that it was impossible to pull him out from the inside and that we would need to remove the layers, one by one. I put together a few people and we began.”
After seven hours, the child—Omar—was rescued safe and sound.
It’s very hard to work on rescuing a child
“Another member of the delegation pulled him out and handed him to me,” Gil continued. “And I took him to the doctors, and from there to the ambulance. It was a very emotional moment.”
Another rescuer described the feeling as “just like giving birth.”
What about the parents, I ask Gil hesitantly.
“I smelled them,” he says. “At some point of the night, we could hear their voices, but then they died down and there was a strong corpse smell inside.”
Tom Shay, a 39-year-old reserve officer and educator, also assisted in Omar’s rescue. As a mother, she too says that rescuing children is the hardest.
“The work was mostly conducted by the Turkish military, and from time to time, they asked us for assistance,” she said. “I worked with Naama, another rescuer who is also a mother, and at first, we were hesitant to go; it was just too difficult to bear. But we kept checking in again and again, and every time they heard signs of life from Omar, I breathed in relief. Toward the end of his rescue, they asked us to join, and so we did. Omar is a hero, it’s a miracle that a two-year-old survived for three days like that.”
I spoke with Tom about an hour after Omar’s rescue. She had been awake for 52 hours straight, but radiated impressive calm.
As a population officer, her job is to “collect information from the area and form a picture of the population that was on site, in order to direct the forces to quick and precise action, and at the same time, monitor the population in an emergency situation to formulate recommendations to commanders on how to act as an emergency force.”
Like many other members of the Israeli delegation, Tom had participated in many rescue missions, including to Nepal in 2015 following the earthquake there. At the time, however, her children, Yarden, 3, and Omri, 1—had not yet been born. Being a mother changes things, she said.
“It is completely different. Back then, I wasn’t a mother myself, and rescuing a child did not immediately make me think of my own children at home. Today, every mother and child I see remind me of my own,” she said.
However, one’s family is also a source of strength, she continued.
“The truth is that you cannot do this without knowing that you have support. What allows me to make this choice every time is the knowledge that I have the support of my husband Ofir at home and that both of our families have our backs. I go out knowing that there are people back home who love me and are proud of me.”
When I asked her if she had hesitated before agreeing to join the mission, she replied, “Yes. It’s a choice every time.”
As a mother, she explained, she is not obligated to join such missions.
“There’s always a moment … when you look around the home and say, ‘Wait, how can I leave all this?’ But straight away, it becomes very clear: you understand that to be part of a group of amazing people from the IDF on this mission is an incredible privilege. This is the moment when, with all the difficulty, I choose to dedicate myself to the unit that I am a member of, knowing that when there is a need, we will come. To be a part of a delegation that saves lives. It’s very emotional. The fact that there is meaning to our arrival.”
Rescuing baby Omar, she said, had felt like coming full circle.
Nearby, another team of Israeli rescuers had managed to rescue a young woman in record time.
“We were working at another scene, and there were too many rescuers, so we decided to step aside and take a short break. Immediately we were asked by locals to help somewhere else. The first thing I saw was a trapped body. We couldn’t remove it, so we covered it with a sheet,” Gil said, pointing to the ruins.
It’s a choice every time
“That’s when we heard a noise nearby, a young woman, 23 years old. Her face was close to that of her mother, who had died. We managed to pull her out. It was amazing to get someone out a mere five minutes after we began. I have done rescue missions in Honduras in a flood and in Brazil in a mudslide, and never experienced anything like this.”
Then came a much more complex case: a husband and wife in their forties, who were sleeping peacefully when the earthquake brought down their home. The husband was trapped in a way that made it impossible to remove him without amputating his leg.
“He was conscious and agreed to the amputation,” said Gil.
According to the law, a foreign medical team can only perform an amputation in Turkey with permission from the local government. As soon as such approval arrived, the leader of the delegation, Vach, joined to personally supervise the complex procedure. The surgery itself was performed by Dr. Eldad Katz, with a Turkish ambulance standing by.
“It was very difficult to reach him,” Katz described. “I was lying on my stomach next to him at a very uncomfortable angle. We had to move him into a different space and that took 16 minutes. Most of the time, I had to figure out how to attach the equipment to him and provide medical treatment. We realized that the situation was serious and that we needed to get him out as soon as possible.
“During the procedure, I saw that he couldn’t feel anything in his leg, and we understood that an amputation was necessary. He stayed …[responsive] throughout the entire operation, and also moved his other leg. In the end, we could finally pull him out. That also took a lot of time, with the local team helping a lot,” said Katz.
Stretchers and ambulances are everywhere, ready to provide assistance the moment someone is pulled from the rubble. Local police and the military work to keep the onlookers away, with people creating a human chain, holding up blankets to protect the dignity of the injured.
The man was successfully extracted after seven hours, but his condition deteriorated on the way to the hospital.
“We took him to the ambulance, the paramedics hooked him up to the monitor, I began to bandage his leg and very quickly he collapsed. We started CPR and gave him adrenaline, but, sadly, after 20 minutes, he died,” said Katz.
Meanwhile, the rescuers continued to try to save his wife, whose leg was also trapped.
The military delegation was joined by civilian volunteers from United Hatzalah, and the IDF’s Search And Rescue Brigade, consisting of 41 people. They had arrived in Turkey on a special chartered flight carrying tens of tons of life-saving equipment. It was with this team, led by Yossi Cohen, that I had arrived in the disaster-stricken region.
Everyone working together, with the help of machinery, succeeded in freeing the woman. United Hatzalah’s Dr. Itay Lebel went in to assess her condition: her leg was crushed, but she was alive and fully conscious.
Local medical workers asked Dr. Lebel and another rescuer to accompany the woman to the hospital, so they got in the ambulance.
“We arrived at the nearest hospital. It was not damaged by the earthquake but was extremely busy. Every corridor and hall was filled with the wounded. We were happy to lend a hand, to save a life. That’s what we’re here for,” said Lebel.
A few hours after the dramatic rescue, we returned to Katz, the surgeon, who in the meantime had managed to take a short nap, fill up on coffee and return to work.
Thirty-nine years old, he specializes in orthopedics and lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and two children.
We haven’t slept for two days
“Every time I leave on a mission, my wife takes care of the home and the children. This is the first time I’ve joined the IDF Home Front Command on such a mission abroad. Everyone here hopes to save lives and it is a great privilege, and we came to help as much as possible. The work of the delegation here is amazing, and we all hope that we will still be able to find survivors in the coming days. The difficulty is mainly the conditions. The winter cold, the lack of sleep—we haven’t slept for two days—and the density at the disaster sites makes it impossible sometimes to reach the survivors from an angle we need,” he explained.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then arrived on the scene. Hundreds of police officers form a path for him and his entourage to pass, with locals watching on.
They waited around anxiously, looking to hear about their loved ones. The president left, and the residents were left to wait alone.
Every moment brought some new event. Three women ran out of a nearby building, screaming. For us, it is a painful news item, for them, a life cut short. The worst was when the crowd fell silent as the bodies were being removed from the scene.
And yet, in the midst of such pain, there were also moments of humanity and joy. As of Sunday morning, the Israeli delegation had rescued 19 people, and was in contact with several more.
The conditions in their makeshift camps are not easy, and rescuers have no access to running water or electricity; sleeping on the floor in the bitter cold isn’t easy either. But Israel has sent more volunteers to Turkey than any other country, and the delegation’s spirit warns the heart as they engage in the most important act—saving lives.
This is a version of an article originally published by Israel Hayom.