Listening for whispers in the ruins

Greece’s EMAK rescue team in increasingly desperate search for quake survivors in Turkey

Listening for whispers in the ruins

With more than 11,000 people confirmed dead across southern Turkey and neighboring Syria after Monday’s devastating earthquakes, rescue teams, local and foreign, are frantically scouring the rubble for the slightest hint of life. 

Drawing from their long experience with similar natural disasters, members of the Special Disaster Response Unit of the Hellenic Fire Brigade are also helping in the efforts and through their perseverance have managed to pull trapped people out of collapsed buildings. 

On Wednesday afternoon, they rescued a 20-year-old woman. Moreover, Greek firefighters managed to extricate a 50-year-old man and his 6-year-old daughter alive from a 14-story apartment building that had fallen down. Earlier, they had also communicated with the 6-year-old’s 7-year-old sister before pulling her unconscious from the twisted ruins, but the little girl didn’t survive.

The EMAK team has at its disposal hydraulic jacks to lift heavy loads, as well as lifting bags that create vital gaps between surfaces. They also have jackhammers, expanders and other digging tools. Furthermore, they are using a special camera equipped with a microphone providing audio contact capability with those trapped in the rubble. 

Their plans usually rely on information from local authorities or testimonies from relatives of missing persons to choose where they will attempt rescues. Buildings are screened and information is assessed, priorities are set so that the effort can be concentrated where there is a chance of finding people alive. 

They may even call out initially, waiting for someone to respond from beneath the rubble. They will then send a specially trained rescue dog to sniff out a human presence and then a second dog to confirm the signal of the first. They cannot afford the luxury of wasting time on false suggestions. They also use a geophone, a special instrument for measuring mechanical vibrations. Once the detection is made, selective displacement and removal of the debris follows. Any movements have to be done with surgical precision to avoid injury or blocking a lifesaving passage. 

“The space the rescuer moves through can be up to 40 to 50 inches wide, depending on how quickly they need to approach the victim. If it is judged that there is no time margin, then they will dig a narrower burrow,” said Dimitris Simitsis, a former EMAK commander and EU Civil Protection Mechanism expert who retired in 2019, in comments to Kathimerini.

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