After the first quake hit, 77 Britons were deployed to join teams from around the world. Here, some recount their experiences

UK-Isar team pull a police officer and a woman from the rubble of a building in Hatay, Turkey, five days after the country was devastated by an earthquake. Photograph: FCDO/PA
Life amid the rubble: UK specialists on their Turkey earthquake rescue effort


After the first quake hit, 77 Britons were deployed to join teams from around the world. Here, some recount their experiences

British search-and-rescue specialists deployed to Turkey after its earthquake on 6 February have recalled the scenes of devastation that they encountered, as the country and its southern neighbour Syria were hit by two more tremors this week.

“If we were still out there [this week], we would have been in those buildings,” said Wayne Ward, a firefighter for Lancashire’s rescue service, and one of 77 British specialists deployed to Turkey in the days that followed the first quake.

On the morning of the magnitude-7.8 quake, Ward received a text message with a deployment notice from the UK International Search and Rescue team (UK-Isar) – a specialist humanitarian disaster response team deployed by the Foreign Office.

Within hours he was saying goodbye to his seven-year-old twin daughters, packing his kit and leaving for Turkey alongside specialists from 14 fire brigades across the UK.

In the southern province of Hatay, rescue workers were met with the full scale of devastation, including destroyed buildings and split roads. The sounds of ambulances and police sirens were constant, and the air filled with dust from the concrete, stirred by passing vehicles.
“There was no time to feel bad and worried about everything. It was just: ‘We’ve got a job to do now to start rescuing as many people and helping as many people as we can,’” said Ward, 41.

At the peak of the aid response, more than 11,000 rescue workers arrived from around the world, according to Winston Chang, the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group global lead who helped oversee the United Nations response.

“This is a strong show of a level of solidarity that has never been seen, especially for international urban search and rescue teams,” said Chang. Of the disaster responses coordinated by Insarag – including the 2020 Beirut blast, the Nepal earthquake in 2015 and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – this show of solidarity “beats them all”, he said.

The same cannot be said of the response across the border in Syria, where the long-running civil war hindered attempts to coordinate assistance.

As crew leader in Hatay, Ward led a team of 12, including search and rescue specialists, a medic, a doctor, and a search dog. Within 30 minutes of their operation beginning the team rescued a 91-year-old woman from the first floor of her apartment building, which had split in half.

While not all their efforts were so successful, they were able to recover buried bodies for local survivors. “They couldn’t thank us enough for being able to get their family members out even though they had passed away, it still meant a lot to them to recover the bodies,” said Ward, who has served two tours in Afghanistan and worked 15 years in the fire service.

“That was bittersweet,” said Ward.

“I’m still dreaming about it,” he added. “It was so in your face, the noises, the sounds and the smells, and everything that was going on … It’s just still wired into my head.”

Adam Varey, a technician for the Lancashire fire service, recalled seeing the Gaziantep airport runways full of military planes bearing international flags. The trip to Turkey was his first heavy rescue deployment. “I could immediately tell that this was going to be bigger than anything I’ve ever been involved in,” Varey said.

The team set up its base next to Hatay stadium where they would eat and sleep, and soon international teams from Spain, Hong Kong, Korea and Italy, appeared. Nearby, a refugee camp was being established. Sleeping was uncomfortable, he said. The nights were cold and with the morning came frosted tents.

“Every morning you woke up and you thought about the local people who didn’t have anything and how cold they must have been overnight, and also the survivors trapped under the rubble,” he said.

In their first rescue, part of a fence was fashioned as a ladder to rescue the 91-year-old woman from her building. In another, the entire team worked 17 hours as they tunnelled to a trapped man and woman. Varey was constantly observing their surroundings, wondering whether they would fall.

“I’ll be honest, I was more scared than I’ve ever been in my entire life when I was over there,” he said. “The destruction is bigger than anything that I’ve ever seen.”

But what he is going to remember most are the reminders of lives they found amid the rubble containing children’s toys and books, and the bravery of local residents. “I’ve never seen people so brave.”

When Jim Davison, 51, was first notified of the request for rescue teams immediately after the initial quake, the team leader for Lancashire’s Isar had a 20-minute window to respond.

As the operational commander in Hatay, much of Davison’s role was protecting his team and ensuring nothing was stopping rescue efforts – including helping them adapt to the scale of the disaster, crowd management and delivering difficult news, through an interpreter, to surviving family members.

“Without a doubt, the way that the Turkish people were dealing with that disaster was unbelievable. When you first got there you thought: ‘Oh, my God, this is total chaos.’ But there was order to the chaos,” said Davison, who was a member of the team that responded to the 2011 Japan tsunami.

On the team’s first rescue, he recalled requesting an ambulance from people on the street. Within 5 minutes one arrived. Some of the most successful rescues came from members of the public notifying the team of sounds beneath the rubble.

“It’s just amazing to see the humanity in people,” he said. “I think nowadays everyone’s weary of everyone and it always seems to be doom and gloom in the press – but there are certain times when you realise that humanity is a beautiful thing.”

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