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‘Either do nothing and people die or risk a little’ to save a p

ISTANBUL, Turkey (BP)–On Wednesday, Aug. 18, the day after the earthquake occurred, I worked with other Southern Baptists living in Turkey to organize visiting volunteers into small groups to distribute bread, water and literature in a small town near Istanbul. Most people there had either lost their homes or were afraid to reenter them because of damage the quake had caused, especially with the threat of aftershocks.
The people were extremely appreciative, even after learning why we were participating in the relief effort. With me was a Turkish friend named Peter, and in our roaming about looking for needs, we happened upon a CNN truck that needed someone to translate for them the next day when they traveled to Izmit, the epicenter of the quake. Peter agreed, but only if I could tag along as well.
When I made it home that night, I learned that Hyati, one of my good Turkish friends who is a Muslim, had attended a funeral service that afternoon for his sister who was in college. I had met her on several occasions. A couple of friends and I went to his house to comfort Hyati and his family.
His sister was apparently sleeping during the quake when one of the minarets (prayer towers) of a nearby mosque toppled, crashed through her ceiling and killed her immediately. No one else in her building was even injured. Her father arrived the morning of the quake and had to pull her body from the rubble himself.
After breakfast I joined Peter to meet the CNN crew at their hotel and went with them to Izmit, about an hour south of Istanbul. We arrived at the scene of a collapsed building where workers were pulling bodies out from the debris as they looked for survivors. Apparently there were none, but several lifeless limbs protruded from the collapsed structure.
Around 11:30 a.m., we moved to the site of a collapsed multi-story apartment building where search dogs had just located possible survivors. The CNN team made the decision to camp out for a while, and I had brought my tools (goggles, gloves, hammer, pick, etc.) and decided to join in the rescue attempt. Initially we removed a lot of rubble surrounding the base of the giant mountain of concrete that used to be a building. We then began to tunnel down. The people there were tired, did not have any gloves, and seemed like they were moving in slow motion, so I moved to the front and tripled the pace of work utilizing blankets and buckets to speed things along.
Eventually we broke through into what was formerly a bedroom with a couple of dead bodies protruding out from beneath the concrete to our right. Only three of us initially went inside this small pocket — about three feet high and six feet wide at its widest point, oriented diagonally upwards into the wreckage and bottlenecking at both ends. The two people ahead of me pulled some carpet down to cover the limbs and also to protect us from the overwhelmingly awful smell.
We kept digging and were beginning to hear the guy we were trying to rescue more and more clearly, and at one point we found a crack and were able to give him water using a water hose, bottles of water and a funnel.
People on the outside handed us tools and water to help with our work, and soon a man with the Swiss demolition team joined the three of us in the chamber. He told us where to cut and where not to cut to avoid getting crushed to death. Knowing that the chamber could collapse on us at any moment due to another tremor, someone walking over us or a mistake in carving our little tunnel was sort of scary, but we knew that it might be the only chance this guy had.
After about three hours in this “underground” chamber, tossing out rubble and drilling through steel, we were finally able to penetrate the wall that separated us from the Turkish teenager, probably about 19 years old. He was pinned a little bit on his left side between his mattress and several pounds of concrete. He could move his arm, so we tossed him some tools, allowing us to work from both sides. He told us that he was hearing voices from other people in other parts of the building, so the Swiss team began drilling in those areas up on the surface.
About half an hour later, we managed to pull him through into the chamber. He was a little banged up with a huge scrape behind his ear, but otherwise seemed fine. A couple of Turks poked their heads in to see that we were about to bring the guy out, then crammed themselves into our small corridor from the outside, making it nearly impossible for us to get anyone out.
I had not been out of the crevice for three and a half hours, but when we did get out we were welcomed by several clapping spectators, medics who rushed the guy to the hospital immediately, and media people who virtually attacked us. I tried getting out of there as fast as I could, but could not find Peter or the CNN group. It turned out they had been called out to another story and had just returned, but missed catching the rescue on camera, although it was filmed by BCC and several other stations.
So I was momentarily trapped and interviewed by a couple of newspapers, who were glad that I spoke English. They asked my name, where I was from, how I felt and why I did it. I was a little overwhelmed at the moment realizing only then just how dangerous what we were doing really was, but it was either do nothing and people die for sure, or risk a little for the chance of seeing a person saved. I thought, as did the others, that it was a risk worth taking.
My picture was photographed several times as an increasing number reporters crowded around — especially after realizing there was an English-speaking American involved. However, before they could ask anything, Peter showed up and came to my rescue. I ran from the crowd towards the CNN bus and hopped on board. They had heard about the rescue and wanted to do a couple of brief interviews live — one for international and another for the domestic channel. The reporter only asked two of the three questions he said he would ask, but the third question was the one I was really hoping he would ask — “Why did you do it?”
We then headed east to the town of Gocuk where a naval base had collapsed, killing hundreds. Traffic was awful, turning what would normally be a one-hour trip into four hours. It was hot and we were constantly surrounded by mobs of people with sticks in their hands and cloth wrapped around their faces waiting to hit cars that tried to avoid traffic by passing in the emergency vehicle lane. Even though we had permission from the police to use that lane with our press pass, our bus was hit a few times.
When we finally arrived in the city, the devastation was widespread and the odor of decay notably strong. … After walking around, I found a makeshift emergency room and asked if they needed help with anything. I had left my tools back in Izmit for others to use, so digging would have been more difficult. They told me that they were fine but that they needed people to help with the recovery of bodies at the naval base barracks that had collapsed. Apparently as they looked for survivors, the bodies of the dead needed to be removed as well. Not exactly the work I had hoped for, but I agreed.
Following a mandatory tetanus shot, I was escorted onto into the restricted-access area on the base itself and met up with the extraction team. We were divided into two groups. I was in the second group that supported the first group until they could not handle it anymore. After a while we were told we could rest. After about 15 minutes into the “rest” time, we were hit by a 10-second tremor. Everything went quiet during that time, and it was clear that people were not sure just how to respond. Shortly thereafter the extraction stopped and it was announced that there were no survivors in the building. The smell was getting increasingly bad, and we were advised to leave since staying longer would do little more than put us at risk for disease. We then shifted gears and began moving goods such as water, bread and cans of beans to trucks that were in the area.
The devastation and loss I have seen has been tremendous. Although several people have been rescued from collapsed buildings, I know that even as late as Saturday afternoon, over four days after the quake, there were many collapsed structures possibly entombing survivors that appear to have not been touched. There is simply not enough manpower to excavate them all.
I appreciate so much the prayers that have been lifted and the support that has been offered, and ask that they please continue. Over the next several weeks, most of our work will be directed into providing food and shelter for those who have lost their homes.

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  • Robby Green