Four Scottish firefighters deployed to Turkey in the aftermath of a series of earthquakes, which claimed the lives of over 47,000 people, have told of the “utter carnage and biblical scenes” they witnessed.
John Aitchison, Steven Adams, Tony Armstrong and Keith Gauld from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) volunteered their time to support survivors of the disaster as part of a 77-strong UK International Search and Rescue (ISAR) team
The squad, who were deployed to Turkey by the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO), spent 10 days searching for survivors and have now returned home.
The earthquakes caused destruction across much of southern Turkey and northern Syria with millions now displaced from their homes.
Watch commander Aitchison, from Portlethen Training Centre, described the scenes as “like being in a film set”.
He said: “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 of the operations, crew commander Adams, from MacAlpine Road Fire Station in Dundee, led a successful rescue over 20 hours to save a 28-year-old man who had become trapped in a six-storey apartment block.
The man has been on the third floor of the building which had collapsed an fallen to the third 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.
Firefighters Mr Armstrong and Mr Gauld, both from Aberdeen’s North Anderson Drive Fire Station supported the rescue.
For both firefighters, it was their first overseas operation.
Mr Armstrong, who played a key role slowly lowering the man down via ropes, 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.”
Mr 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.”
Over the course of the operation the UK ISAR team managed to save 11 lives in rescues, which has been described as the most successful UK ISAR project for 30 years.
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.”
The fire crews also reflected on the harrowing scenes when displaced families were 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 team were supported in their efforts by an interpreter who travelled 12 hours from Istanbul.
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.”
In order to join the UK ISAR, firefighters must undergo a rigorous recruitment process before undertaking extensive training.
They must also meet intense fitness requirements.
The team in Turkey covered a vast area carrying kit and had to operate on very little sleep.
After a long day of working, the team would return to their tent in freezing temperatures and prepared equipment for the next day.
While trying to get some rest, the team could fell the earthquake aftershocks in their tents.
Crew commander Adams said: “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.
The team members will also receive support, including mental health and wellbeing services, in Scotland from the SFRS ISAR Management Team.
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 a 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.”