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Day 1 Turkey Operations Update from “PJ” Josh Webster

"PJ" Josh Webster

Joshua Maverick Webster is currently an Army Officer stationed in Vicenza, Italy. He recently spent 8 years as an Air Force Pararescueman “PJ” for the 131st Rescue Squadron in Mountain View, California. He previously served as an Army Ranger Team Leader at 2/75th Ranger Battalion and was released honorably after two combat tours in Afghanistan. He is a registered Paramedic and holds a B.A. in History from UCLA.

25 October 2011

We awoke at 4:30 am and headed for the airport. Istanbul International Airport was a beehive of activity that early, and we talked strategy as we checked our bags and headed to our gate. While waiting for out plane we ran into a medical relief team from Japan. Their organization was called Tokushukai and they hailed from many different cities across their country. They consisted of a few doctors, a few nurses, and a pharmacist. We spoke about where the camp was in Van, and what arrangements anyone had set up. It was a relief to learn that they, like us, had very little intelligence and very little plan. We exchanged information and promised to meet up if we could. They also politely informed us that the backs of our uniform shirts had Japanese writing on them. The words that were written translated as “Military Medic”. I don’t think that was intention when these shirts were printed.

Other rescue teams crowded the terminal headed for Van. A Chilean search-dog team of two men entered, pushing the crates that held their dogs. They were volunteer firefighters from northern Chile, and they had left for Turkey as soon as the Organizacion Non-Governmental (O.N.G) had alerted them minutes after the earthquake. I thought we had come a long way to Turkey from Los Angeles, they had traveled an additional 2000 miles. Morning prayer began in the terminal and the men were approached by Turks ready to perform their morning prayer or salat. Apparently dogs were considered trashy animals in Turkey and were not welcome so close to where the ablutions were going to be performed. The two Chilean search-dog handlers just laughed it off. They were not concerned with the mission of these Turks to remove the dogs from the airport, they had come on a mission of their own.

Van, Turkey was full of soldiers and medical rescue teams when we landed. We met with a contact from the Turkish Search-and-Rescue Organization (called A.K.U.T for short). They told us that most of the teams had already moved to Ercis, Turkey. Ercis was also badly damaged and had many killed and injured people. A.K.U.T had been there for 2 days and was heading back to Van. They told us that teams from Van would be doing another search of the damaged sites, and possibly sending small teams into the surrounding towns to inspect them and check for damage. We caught a ride with the Japanese medical team and arrived at a Turkish government relief office with a Turkish engineering team that was inspecting buildings for damage. We all sat in a small room with cracks in the walls and ceiling, discussing (across 4 languages) the laborious governmental bureaucracy that had us sipping tea and waiting for a government official to come talk to us. Their sentiments were the same as ours.

After a introduction to the mayor of Van, and a tour of the damaged areas we decided to head to Ercis (pronounced air-chis) instead. We rented a car and headed out around Lake Van further north. Ercis, nestled alongside Van lake, turned out to be directly north of Van, and along the same tectonic plate that had shifted, causing the earthquake. As we entered the city we saw hundreds of people lined up to receive tents, food, and water from the Red Crescent. The government of Turkey arranged for all these supplies to be brought into Ercis, and for good reason. The downtown area of Ercis appeared to be the epicenter of the quake. Hundreds of small buildings and dozens of large ones sat collapsed under the weight of their own cement. Many had pancaked together, leaving very little hope that any empty space existed that could house human life. An A.K.U.T team leader simply said to us as we approached one of the wreckage sites “Welcome to a nightmare”.

The downtown of Ercis, an area roughly 10 square blocks, lay in ruins. Power had been shut off because of the thousands of downed power lines. All businesses were closed, nobody was selling food, and armed soldiers guarded entrances to the most dangerous areas. The Turkish Medical Rescue (E.M.U.K) personnel smoked cigarettes with dust masks hanging under their chins. A team actively pulled apart rebar on a mountain of crumbled cement while a large crane dug out a collapsed building looking for pockets of dead space where they might find living persons. Women cried, children stared at us, men waited in line for food from the relief agencies. Nightmare indeed.

Ercis had the personnel they needed for a job nobody ever wanted to do. Their Emergency Management System was in place, and their A.K.U.T and E.M.U.K personnel seemed to have the job well under control. Ambulances still brought people into the makeshift hospital located in the local gymnasium, but the people they were finding were few and far between. A day earlier a 15-week old baby had been pulled from the wreckage alive, but after 72 hours, no such event was expected to happen again. Nathan and I made the call to do all we could to help in the search, but decided we could be better used in the outlying towns and villages.

The Japanese medical team we had met earlier informed us that they were headed to outlying villages the next day to look for injured personnel. We told them we would accompany them, and bring our rescue gear in case there was any need for it. We arranged to meet the Japanese medical team the following day (Thursday) and introduced ourselves to a 6-person German medical team called Humedica. They gave us some of their tent-space to sleep in, and we set off to gather our gear, patiently awaiting what lay ahead. In both cities, Van and Ercis, we were the only Americans to be seen. Besides us, six Germans, two Chileans and eight Japanese medics, everyone else was from Turkey.