Watch Commander John Aitchison, Portlethen Training Centre, Crew Commander Steven Adams from MacAlpine Road Fire Station, Dundee, and firefighters Tony Armstrong and Keith Gauld from Aberdeen’s North Anderson Drive Fire Station were part of a 77-strong UK International Search and Rescue (ISAR) team deployed to Turkey by the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO).
Following a series of earthquakes which hit Turkey and Syria, the four firefighters from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) have now returned home after spending 10 days searching for survivors.
Watch Commander Aitchison said: “It was like being in a film set. Everything was utter devastation. Multi storey buildings looked like they had been picked up and thrown back down on the ground again. Some buildings were upside down, some buildings were on their side.”
“People had lost their family. It was like the news reports of war zones where you see women crying, fathers trying to get kids out of rubble. People were crying and trying to get us to help them at every street corner.”
On day two Crew Commander Adams led on a successful rescue operation that lasted 20 hours. A 28-year-old man had become trapped in a 6-storey apartment block. The casualty had been on third floor which had collapsed and was now the first floor.
It was feared his legs would need to be amputated to free him however the rescue team managed to get him out and save his legs.
There was a large drop to get the man back on the ground and Firefighter Armstrong was key in the effort to slowly lowering the man down via ropes. He said: “When we knew we had successfully freed his leg, it was such a huge sense of euphoria that I’d never felt before.
“It made you proud that a Scottish team member – my colleague – was leading this operation under so much pressure and making difficult decisions. It made you think would I have been able to do that? And Steven just took it in his stride.”
Firefighter Gauld added: “There was a point when the sun hit his face and the man was so grateful he was shouting and thanking God and thanking everyone.”
This was just one rescue out of 11 lives which were saved by the efforts of the UK ISAR team.
Watch Commander Aitchison said: “We will do everything to get that person out. We went through sets of gloves trying to burrow through to get to our casualties.”
Tragically, the death toll from the devastating earthquakes is thought to stand at around 47,000 and it was harrowing to see the gratitude some families displayed after being reunited with their deceased loved ones.
Crew Commander Adams said: “We recovered a lady who had sadly died due to her injuries and her husband put his arms around us for reuniting his wife with his family, as he would never have been able to do that himself.”
The ISAR team’s effort also received help from many sources, including an interpreter who had driven from Istanbul – around 12 hours away. He became embedded into their team and a vital resource to their rescue efforts.
Crew Commander Adams said: “He was on the front line with us, interacting with casualties, doing all he could do with the resources he had. It was humanity at its best. The bravery and commitment he showed was something I’ll never forget.”
Firefighters volunteer to become part of the UK ISAR team and must undertake a rigorous recruitment process before being selected to join the team, they then go through extensive training and must meet intense fitness requirements.
In Turkey the team covered a vast area, carrying kit and had to operate on very little sleep. After a long day working when they returned to their tent in the dark in freezing temperatures, they worked to get their equipment ready for the next day. The aftershocks felt in their tents were a constant reminder of potential dangers.
Crew Commander Adams added: “Turkey made me reflect on how meaningful our training is. This is why we train the way we do – so that we are ready to help people in situations like this.”
SFRS Deputy Assistant Chief Officer Bruce Farquharson is UK ISAR Team Manager for Scotland. He said: “Our colleagues left at short notice and put their lives aside to join the UK ISAR team in Turkey. They have done an incredible job and helped to reunite people with their loved ones. I am incredibly proud of them and of the whole UK ISAR team.”
The team in Turkey were supported by their SFRS colleagues in Scotland. Group Commander Andy Buchan kept in close contact with the team as well as with their families at home.
For Firefighters Armstrong and Gauld, as it was their first overseas operation, their families were especially concerned.
Now that the team have returned home and are reflecting on their experience, the support mechanisms that were put in place before, during and after deployment by the SFRS ISAR Management Team will help them to decompress. They will also continue to receive support from SFRS and they will be encouraged to use all mental health and wellbeing services already available to SFRS staff, with the additional ISAR support also built in.
Watch Commander Aitchison said: “We saw utter carnage and biblical scenes which we’ll never forget. It’s not something you can see and then it goes away, but it is something we’ll all need to process as we go forward.”
Crew Commander Adams said: “I’ve struggled with the quiet. In Turkey it was constant noise, sirens 24/7, generators, shouting and then all of sudden, you’re back home to quiet. The welfare and support provided by SFRS has been excellent.”
He added: “We want to make a difference, whether at home or overseas. Do we wish it was more? Of course, we do. We always want to push that little bit extra but we made a massive difference. We reunited 11 people with their families who had given up hope. This UK ISAR team managed to do that and this has been the most successful operation for 30 years.”
UK Minister for Development Andrew Mitchell said: “The UK Government is proud that brave Scottish firefighters and medics have been at the very heart of our efforts to help the Turkish people in their hour of need.”
- The UKISAR team responds primarily to overseas urban search and rescue emergencies on behalf of the UK.
- Any UKISAR team deployed is self-sufficient upon arrival and provides its own food, water, shelter, sanitation, communications and all necessary equipment to undertake search and rescue operations for up to 14 days.
- This is to ensure no additional burden is placed upon a country already suffering demands on its resources following a sudden onset disaster.
- All UKISAR staff are trained to use specialist kit and the equipment being taken will ensure the team has the ability and capacity to lift, cut and remove concrete and rubble from collapsed structures.