A WELSH firefighter on her first deployment with the UK International Search and Rescue (UK-ISAR) team has told how nothing could have prepared her for the devastation she’s faced in Turkey.
Emma Atcherley, 42, from Bedwas, near Caerphilly, South Wales, was one of five Welsh firefighters deployed to Turkey through the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office as part of the UK Government’s response to last week’s catastrophic earthquakes.
She is one of 77 search and rescue specialists scrambled from 14 fire and rescue services across the UK a week ago to start operations within the critical 72-hours rescue window – working day and night to rescue multiple people from the rubble.
The UK Government’s humanitarian support is also providing medical treatment and supplying life-saving kit such as blankets and tents.
Emma – who serves South Wales Fire & Rescue Service as a Crew Manager at Cardiff Central Station – admitted: “Turkey is my first deployment with UK-ISAR and no amount of training could ever prepare you for how tough life is on the ground.
“The training prepares you for how to set up base and how things work operationally, but there are very few places you can train that could give you a true sense of what it’s like.
“Anything we work on that is quite true to real life are made safe before we train on them, whereas here we were going into buildings that were not safe and making tunnels not really knowing when the next aftershock might happen. That level of anxiety you just can’t prepare for.
“Nor the level of intensity because you constantly feel like you are on a stopwatch and up against the clock. You’ve got such a limited window to make a real difference and pull people out alive.
“The scale of the devastation shocked even colleagues who have been on numerous deployments.”
With the death toll hitting over 36,000, the UK Government has worked with the Turkish authorities to deploy the UK Emergency Medical Team (UK-EMT) to Turkoglu, Eastern Turkey to provide life-saving care.
The UK-EMT is made up of roughly 100 emergency medics from frontline medical charity UK-Med, the NHS and the Ministry of Defence. The team started treating people from a clinic next to a severely damaged hospital yesterday FEB13 and are building a larger field hospital with 24/7 operating theatre, a high dependency unit and beds for in-patient care.
Emma – a firefighter for almost 19 years – was part of the UK-ISAR team on Saturday that pulled out two survivors who had been trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building for 120 hours.
She was also involved in pulling out a 90-year-old lady on the UK team’s first day in Turkey and another man the following day.
She said: “It is so good when you pull someone out. When you know that there is potentially life to save, you get your hopes up and you are desperate to help and get them out.
“When you realise that it is a genuine possibility, it’s a really nice feeling.
“The reaction of the families when we’ve saved lives has been really heart-warming, seeing their relief and knowing that we’ve changed someone’s life. Generations of families are going to be around now because of some of those rescues.
“The rescue of the man and lady trapped in the stairwell took us 17 to 19 hours from start to finish, from hearing their voices to actually having them both out and in an ambulance.
“I wasn’t there to see them get out because obviously, we had to rotate the team.
“I was part of the first shift from two o’clock until about 1.30am – we were there almost 12 hours before handing over to the other team.
“It was really difficult for the team to walk away knowing that you are probably not going to see those people come out, having started on the rescue.
“But that’s where the strength of the team leaders comes in, to look after our welfare when we’re not really looking after it ourselves. Bringing in a rested team to take over which was the right thing to do. That is what teamwork is all about. Everyone plays their part.”
She added: “For people that see the clips of our rescues there is so much more to it. We have the support of our families, we have people making sure we get a hot shower when we get back to base, there’s a team making sure the communications are right, so we get the right information, there are teams making sure we have the kit we need for a rescue. We couldn’t be here without the support of our home brigades and the UK Government reacting to get us out so quickly.
“It’s not just the people who are in a hole scraping rubble, there’s so much more going on.”
The specialists have been working in the town of Antakya in the Hatay Province since last Tuesday after being immediately scrambled from across the UK.
Emma said: “I don’t think I’ve cried yet but throughout the day you go to a work site and you are up and you are down, and you are up and then you are down. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster.
“The worst moments have been seeing the deceased being pulled out of the rubble. A lot of the local teams have been working with bull dozers and have been taking deceased out of the rubble. Seeing them piled up at the side of the road and the grieving families – that’s difficult. It’s so sad.
“Also giving people bad news that there’s nothing we can do after we’ve detected no signs of life, those are the worst moment.
“Outside most collapsed buildings, there’s relatives sat just waiting which is quite hard to see that level of suffering.
“They want us to bring their loved ones out alive or dead. We are a live rescue team so we have had to explain we can’t do anything if we can’t find signs of life, which is really hard.
“Unfortunately, there are more of the low moments than the highs.”
Emma is looking forward to an emotional reunion with husband Leon and daughters Florence, 10, and eight-year-old Martha.
She said: “They are moving to a recovery phase but until all the rubble’s gone you never give up hope that you might find somebody.
“I’m not sure how much my kids understand of what’s going on. I know that at school they watch Newsround, so they will have seen something. I also know that their teacher did a little talk on me being part of the UK Government’s response and what the team were doing.
“I know the kids are very proud of me, but they don’t like me leaving and they were not happy that I was going. Any time I’ve spoken to them it’s very much been ‘When are you coming home?’.
“I’m sure there will be lots of screaming and tears if I manage to pick them up from school when I get back.”
Big-hearted Brits donated over £60million to the DEC Appeal for Turkey and Syria in its first two days, including £5 million from the UK Government in matched funding.
International Development Minister Andrew Mitchell said: “This would not have been possible without the kindness and support of the British people. Thank you.”