Rob and Murray dropped everything to help in devastated Turkey. This is what they saw on the ground
By Kate Aubusson
Doctor Rob Scott (left) and Chief Inspector Murray Traynor (right) who were a part of the Disaster Assistance Response Team AUS-2 team that deployed to assist in the Turkish earthquake response. Credit:Kate Geraghty
Six days after the catastrophic earthquake struck south-eastern Turkey, Dr Rob Scott pulled the bodies of two teenage girls from the rubble that was their home.
“They were sisters,” Scott recalls. “Their extended family were all waiting on the side of the road.”
“I won’t forget the sounds, the emotion, when we brought these girls out and gave them back to their family. They were absolutely distraught.”
“They had already lost the girls’ parents … their little brother, who must have been about three or four years old, was sitting there crying with the rest of them.”
As Scott looked down the road, he saw the same scene play out again and again as families waited for rescue crews to help recover their dead loved ones from under several tonnes of cement and twisted metal.
The trauma doctor and specialist anaesthetist from Sydney had only just arrived in the destroyed city of Antakya, the Hatay province capital.
He was among a team of 72 Australians trained in urban search and rescue operations who had been sent to help local rescue crews search for survivors and recover the dead from the rubble that had just days earlier been apartments, hospitals, schools and businesses.
Scott volunteered for the mission within 48 hours of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake on February 6 at 4.17am local time. It would be the first overseas deployment for the medico who usually splits his time between St George Hospital in south-east Sydney and rescuing seriously injured people with NSW Ambulance.
“My heart was in my mouth when I agreed to go, and asked my wife and told the kids what was happening,” the father of three young daughters aged 10, eight and five years old, said.
The team consisted of two trauma doctors and five paramedics from NSW Ambulance, 60 Fire and Rescue NSW personnel, a NSW Police officer and four members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).
The team flew out the next day. It would take more than two days to get to Antakya.
This would be Murray Traynor’s fourth overseas deployment. The paramedic of 36 years had been on the ground in Samoa after the 2008 tsunami, in Christchurch in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and in Vanuatu following the 2015 cyclone.
But even Traynor found the extent of the destruction in Antakya overwhelming.
“The whole city about the size of Parramatta was rubble,” Traynor said.
The damage caused by the earthquake and its aftershocks spread across an area of about 350,000 square kilometres (about the size of Germany) through Turkey and across the Syrian border.
It is the deadliest natural disaster in Turkey’s modern history, with more than 55,700 deaths – 48,400 in Turkey and more than 7200 in Syria.
An estimated 2.4 million people have been left homeless, seeking shelter in tents and temporary shelters, and more than 850,000 children remain displaced, the UN’s International Organisation of Migration says.
Antakya, a whole city the size of Parramatta, was in ruins.
The Australians knew there was little chance they would find large numbers of survivors so many days after the initial earthquake. They heard accounts of other rescue crews finding a handful of people alive in basements and other air pockets beneath the rubble, but the Australians found no living victims during their 10 days in the field.
“We had all the instruments and machinery, and other countries had dogs that we could use to find possible live victims … but unfortunately that wasn’t the case,” Traynor said.
Retrieving the dead and returning their bodies to their families became their primary task.
In one day, the crew recovered 12 victims, including children as young as two, Traynor said.
“There were a lot of children that we pulled from the rubble. That would get to anyone, I don’t care what anyone says,” he said.
Retrieving the dead and returning their bodies to their families became the Australians’ primary task.
“Families would implore you to go in. To be able to hand back their loved ones, so they could mourn and bury with dignity … that was how we coped.”
The father of a 12-year-old girl buried under the remnants of their apartment building had to be dragged away from the site for fear that he would injure himself.
“But at the end of the day, he was so grateful that we found his daughter. At least he had his child back to mourn. Every one of us will have a memory like that,” Traynor said.
The Australian paramedics and doctors were responsible for the health and wellbeing of their fellow Australians as they searched the dangerous terrain.
“The team did some heroic stuff to make sure the deceased could be taken back to their families, and they had the expertise to do that safely,” Traynor said of the crew working amid rubble piles underneath buildings amid aftershocks and the possibility of more earthquakes.
They were set up to manage severe trauma and acute injuries, but thankfully there were none.
The team searched dangerous terrain for survivors.
Overall, the team brought 22 tonnes of equipment with them to ensure they were completely self-sustaining and put no further burden on local resources.
They set up their base of operations in the carpark of a showground, sleeping in tents as the temperature overnight dipped below minus 10.
At the end of the deployment, the Australians donated a lot of their medical supplies (medications and consumables) to Turkish health facilities.
The local people, despite nursing their own deep traumas, showed unwavering hospitality to the Australians, offering them countless cigarettes and cups of tea and coffee, Traynor said.
“One old fellow on his 120cc motorbike pulled up and shook every one of our hands saying ‘thank you for coming’,” he said. “It’s something that will stay with me for a long time,” he said.
On February 20, the last day in the field before the Australians headed home, there was another substantial earthquake.
For Scott, that 6.3 magnitude quake exposed the fragility of life for the survivors and the ongoing humanitarian crisis that would likely persist for years to come.
“I just wanted to be getting home and hug my kids,” he said.
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