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Disaster Zone: The Turkey-Syria Earthquake, Donna’s Story

By Donna PriestleyTraining Co-ordinator and First Aid Instructor SEPAR International

When I was asked about going to Turkey to help with the Earthquake disaster, I jumped at the opportunity, I am a huge fan of humanitarian work and I thrive in looking after and helping people, it’s very important to me. I’m not really sure what my expectations were as I have never experienced anything like it, but I knew I wanted to support in any way I could.

SEPAR International Operations set me up with all gear (and no idea!) to prepare for the trip, with warm kit, boots, tents, sleeping bags, cooking facilities and Starlink satellite internet communications as well as the 24-hour overwatch so the team knew where I was at all times, which was a great sense of relief considering the continual aftershocks and earthquakes.

After saying goodbye to my family and being dropped off at the airport on the 10th February, the reality of what was I was actually going to do hit home and I have to say I was actually really excited to meet the rest of the team at the first pit stop in Istanbul. The second flight was full to bursting with many nationalities and a whole host of Search and Rescue teams with at least half a dozen dogs who gained lots of attention from their fellow passengers, the flight attendants gave a very warm welcome to the teams and thanked them for their support and a big round of applause from all on board. I also had linked up with Rob Gray (Team Leader, Medic, IOSH, Safety Rigger, Scottish Mountain Rescue Team) and Sibel Turhan (Turkish Doctor and Psychologist).

At 3 am on the 11th February we arrived at Adana airport where it was chaotic and full of people who had come to help Turkey, Search and Rescue, Soldiers from Germany, teams from building companies offering their services, journalists and many more. We met our drivers and drove several hours before arriving to Sibel’s family home, where we were greeted with such affection and warmth, tea, and a few hours of sleep. With our drivers and transport in hand, we spent the first day linking up with doctors, nurses, and local charities to find the areas to help in and that appeared to have had less support than the bigger towns and cities. On our journey, we witnessed what literally looked like ghost towns with only the odd person here and there, walking or sitting with their heads in their hands. Buildings that were still standing were completely desolate and in total darkness. Garages were closed with no fuel so every opportunity to fill up with fuel was taken, and to stock up on supplies as we had been advised that there was literally nothing available anywhere due to the devastation. Sleeping overnight in a van with minus temperatures was an interesting evening and very little sleep but I was still so grateful to have a roof over my head and to feel safe with my companions.

Our first visit was to Antakya, where the buildings were completely destroyed, mountains of concrete and rubble everywhere with remnants of what was once a home, roads shut off where buildings covered the roads, bridges partially broken, houses that had either collapsed or were upright but had half of them missing so you could see inside what would almost appear like a dolls house but on a larger scale. People’s bathrooms with toilets stood perfectly, weirdly ironic as there were no toilet facilities available, bedrooms on full show with posters on the walls, and everyday items sat waiting to be used. Families stood around in the streets just watching and waiting for guidance on what to do, where to go, and waiting for news on any family members stuck inside the collapsed buildings, setting up homes in anything that could be utilised as some form of shelter. People were sat in their cars, in parks, and outside their homes with complete shock and dismay on their faces, some crying, some praying, some places were completely desolate with not a soul around and looking and feeling like ghost towns, very quiet and very eery. I don’t think you can describe the overwhelming devastation and destruction, I have never seen anything like it in my life. I said to my colleague Rob, I can only imagine this must be like a war zone as my only real knowledge and understanding of war is through the media and my time as a military family, he agreed it really was the same.

The local empty spaces very quickly became base camps, with tarpaulin, plastic sheets, blankets, occasional tents, and anything the locals could find to keep safe and warm. The temperatures in the evening were very low, it was literally minus degrees in the first few days. The majority of local people were in clothes that I can only imagine had been grabbed as they escaped, found, and donated as the empty parks and spaces became home to hundreds of families. Boxes of clothes and shoes were dumped in the streets, and these had been rummaged through and scattered everywhere, like a crazy car boot sale. Boxes of small plastic water packs arrived and boxes of individually packaged cakes and snacks for families to share. The roadsides that were accessible near these spaces had what looked like local and independent food companies and chai vans giving away free food and drinks too. Then the bigger shelters slowly arrived offering more substantial meals such as soups, a chickpea dish and rice, and mountains of bread.

There were no toilet facilities in some of the areas we visited and stayed and those that had managed to be delivered were rendered useless within a couple of days. There was no access to water for washing anyone or anything, bottles of hand gels were placed in boxes and passed around camps to help with sanitation.

Sibel was our saviour on this trip as she was our Turkish colleague who is a psychologist and works for the NHS, she was a great interpreter and supported Rob and myself, obtaining work for us with a local charity in Antakya. Sibel stayed with the camp in Antakya and helped support the medical teams with her psychiatric knowledge. The locals, some of whom were schizophrenic and had not had any medication and were trying to get back into their homes to their families who had sadly died but they were unaware or had little to no understanding or knowledge of this. Rob and I went to a site where another local charity was building a whole camp with full working facilities, within 48 hours of the earthquake they had sourced a large empty space of land and had gained the support of companies to level and hardcore the ground, they ordered hundreds of tents, and we joined the Turkish Army and firefighters to put them up and secure them. On our second day of working alongside the charity, they had achieved so much more and were installing full working toilet facilities and had several food trucks arriving as permanent facilities. The plan when we left was that families would start arriving by the coach load and would at least have somewhere warm and dry for the long term until life could resume some sort of normality.

Our next leg of the journey was to Iskenderun, we arrived here around 5 pm on the 13th February when the sun was just starting to set and had a lovely rose coloured sky. Iskenderun is a beautiful fishing town that looked picturesque with a beautiful promenade seafront with ships in the distance and then beautiful snow topped mountains sat behind the towns. A little walk further down the road and the cracks literally start to appear, the majority of the seafront apartments looked completely untouched until you ventured closer to the town where a nine-storey apartment building had completely collapsed. AFAD (Turkish Government Disaster and Emergency Organisation) were on scene, they had already dug through the top three floors working their way through each floor to recover approximately 20 people that were still thought to be inside. Sibel spoke to AFAD on our behalf and asked if we could help in any way, they said you are prepared to work a night shift then yes please come back at 8 pm. We had a wander around the centre of the town, the streets were empty, but the central park was full of queues of families waiting for food. There were several tents set up with the standard meal offerings in trays, a tent with any tea flavour you could wish for, a small café where many people were sleeping on the floors, benches, and play park equipment all being utilised as beds.

At 8 pm, Rob and I had our risk assessment conversation, donned our safety gear, and headed up the rickety homemade wooden ladders to start our evening shift at the very top of the building. For a girl who is scared of heights, the ladders were a pretty daunting task and Rob had many laughs at my very wobbly efforts. Once we reached the top there were dozens of people, some directing, some digging, and then lines of helpers on all sides passing buckets of rubble to be thrown over the edge. Rob and I had no understanding of the Turkish language so had to guess what was being asked of us and get by with Google Translate and the little English that some teams spoke. Tensions were very high, with lots of shouting and frustrated people and a scuffle, we later found out there were family members desperate to hurry things along in the hope that people could still be saved.

It’s very hard to explain or describe what you see in that moment of time, the most random of things that I guess you wouldn’t expect or think about but weirdly you should because it is someone’s home just not as it should be. One of the first things that resonated as the building being part of a family home was the grand piano that lay smashed in pieces, the chair having all four legs displaced and the piano book with what looked like a child’s writing on the pages, this in itself was very emotional for some of those in the line-up, one of whom folded this particular sheet up and placed it in his pocket. After the piano and a little further into the dig, a box of Christmas decorations had spilled its contents and were trickling down a sloped area, beautiful little trinkets that you know had just been used only a few weeks previously and had carefully been stored ready for Christmas 2023, decorations that would never be used or seen again and a family no longer alive to appreciate them. A full bottle of Jagermeister was completely untouched, remnants of broken crockery and homeware gave away the signs of a kitchen room, the tiniest little pink cup and a while later the matching pink saucer, both completely whole without a chink on them. Each little area we worked on represented part of each home, and it became obvious with the trinkets that you found, perfumes, aftershaves, moisturisers, toilet rolls and towels as to which room you were working in.

Many of the men on site would not pass me any heavy materials and I asked why they were not including me in some of the big pieces of rubble being passed, was it because they thought I was weak, the teams laughed and explained they were gentleman and I was a woman so they were being considerate, I asked that I be treated equally and I was there to help. They were shocked that a female was prepared to be on the building working as hard as the men and that the Scottish and English people had come over to help. They were very kind to me on every break and spoke for me to those who did not realise I was female because of the language barrier. There were only a couple of women on site and they generally guiding the teams but not digging. After a few hours on the first evening on top of the building the search teams came across a mattress, at this point, everything slowed down there was lots of shouting, I assume for blankets, body bags, and an ambulance as I came to realise was mattress was usually the sign that we were more than likely to find someone, sadly not alive. The first person was a lady, her foot appearing from the end of her mattress, she was very slowly and carefully dug out with the utmost respect and kindness. In another area, work also slowed down as a male doctor was close to being found, his personal possessions and some photo albums were being looked through, he was an older man who appeared to work with special needs children in countries all over the world, the photos portrayed a kind and gentle man, his body was found the following morning.

There were many aftershocks during our time working on the Eda apartment, many of them we didn’t feel as the whole building was constantly vibrating with the CAT machinery helping to dig rubble and the giant cranes lifting the huge chunks of concrete, the only parts that had remained solid in the whole building. It was so busy and noisy as well as winds and dust and we had to concentrate on the vehicles moving around us, a constant hive of activity. Rob and I became well known almost infamous to the locals who would invite us to their tables for lunch in the Yacht club and pass their gratitude for our help, invite us for chai, and share their own stories and families with us, Google translate was my best friend and I have made friends for life in Turkey, a country that never ceased to amaze me with their thoughtfulness and generosity.

As the days went on and we saw similar items relating to different apartments, wardrobes that were flattened with clothes still hung up as if it was still standing, shoes scattered around, towels, precious photo albums showing the people who lived in this once luxury home. The language and understanding became easier during the week and we made many friends from other Turkish towns. I remember one day as we clambered down the side of the rubble, the road opposite was filled with families waiting for news on their loved ones, making their wonderful chai and offering any workers food and thanking them for coming. An older lady came to me crying with her head in her hands and talking to me, I gave her a long hug to console her and apologised for not understanding and trying to explain that I was English, a friend of this lady came and spoke to me and explained that this was her friends home and her family were inside, she had lost everything, her whole life was in her apartment. The friend was called Suzan and she became a very good friend, she called one of her daughters, Suna who lives in Istanbul and speaks English, Suzan wanted to know where we were staying, asked if we needed anything and how she could help us. Suna explained her mum had a factory where we could stay, it had not been damaged and we could eat sleep, and shower there, to say I was grateful for a shower was an understatement as working on site was so dusty and dirty and baby wipes didn’t really cut it! We stayed at the factory for the rest of our time at the site in Iskenderun, they fed us, and gave us beds, fresh food and showers most days, a far different experience from a van floor, a tent and the floor of the local Yacht club which had become a safe haven for some local families and the elderly as well as all of the teams that were helping to dig on site.

Once we arrived at the factory, we were very fortunate to meet with some of the workers from the factory whose homes had been damaged and Suzan and her family had given them all shelter. Suzan’s son is a chef and he had also organised a team of friends to cook every day, food was being donated by some big companies who work with professional chefs and they were catering for over 4,000 families and providing service this from a small church within Iskenderun, with deliveries being made to over 100 families on the outskirts that had no transport or access.

The next few days on the building became something I was keen to get to as early as I could and stay as long as possible, it was hard work literally on my hands and knees scooping the smallest bits of rubble into buckets and passing them along the line, but the desperation to find people became the main focus, I wanted to make sure that the missing were returned to their families so they could bury them, grieve and move forward. There were at least 3 children somewhere in the building and I was longing for them to be found, as a mother this was more important to me than anything. I understood the pain and heartache that the families who had been at the site from day one of the earthquakes must have been going through, one man had lost his whole family, his wife and one child had been found on the first day, but he still had three children inside, he stayed in his car or on the roadside all week and refused to leave them. Every day that I arrived at the site I asked our newly found friends who had been found and who was left to search for. On this day there a huge vase, I can only describe it to be the size of a large umbrella stand, it was upside down and was being gently dug out by hand, I expected that this would have the top half missing and that it would just pop out of the rubble in seconds but I was shocked to find it was completely intact with not a chip on it, I carried this vase, as if it was a child in my arms, a precious cargo that may mean so much to someone who might be a part of that family. Any personal possessions that had no damage or photos that would be memories were kept safely in piles on one side of the site grounds, like artifacts that had been discovered.

The second and third bodies to be found that evening was a young lady and a man, I am still in utter awe at the respect and care given to them. The young lady was lying on her side with her leg on show, soon to be covered by blankets. Everyone was told very firmly in Turkish that all cameras were to be put away, no photos to be taken, and a circle was formed around the specialists that were excavating, plastic sheets and blankets were held by those of us in the circle, I turned my back at this point and only turned around on occasion to see how far things had progressed as I wasn’t really sure how I felt about seeing the bodies. There was a bit of stomach-churning and sadness at this whole scene, but I reminded myself why I was there, why I was doing this, and the families that I could clearly see at the bottom of the rubble pile waiting for news. I put myself in their position and was grateful for those moments. Once this young lady was wrapped in blankets and placed in a body bag and carried down the building by a small team and my friend Rob. The next excavation started, finding a man who had his hand held upright next to where the lady had been and then a few minutes later his head appeared which was also upright with dark and what looked like curly hair, at that moment in time I wondered when the building collapsed whether they were together, both alive and talking to each other, was he holding her hand to comfort her? I guess that was a bit of a comfort to me and I hoped that was the case, I will never know the answers but it’s a nice idea in a very sad situation. Rob and I left shortly after this and went back to the factory and woke up to the news that the bodies that the 3 children were found overnight, part of me was relieved that I wasn’t there for this as I am a mum to four boys and I wonder how I would have felt about being there and seeing them but I was also happy that they were found and returned to their dad and could rest in peace. There were 4 more coffins at the foot of the building on our return and that was the last of the bodies to be known to be inside the apartments. We said our goodbyes to the friends and families we had met staying in the factory and those that were left at the Yacht club as the majority of the teams had slowly started to dwindle off in the last couple of days. We left Iskenderun once there was nothing further we could do and we knew all the bodies we had been searching for had been found. The streets had quietened, the food tents and families had left, and the soldiers were arriving to guard the remainder of the building and the possessions that everyone has managed to save during their time.

Rob and I stayed in a town called Silifke, where our fantastic drivers lived, it was a safe haven and had not been hit unlike the 10 cities around. We stayed for a couple of days to have a debrief and wind down before our return home, we had been in Turkey for 11 days but it only felt like half of that because it was such a busy and crazy time. I remember waking up on the first morning here and thinking what have I actually achieved, I felt a little underwhelmed by the whole experience, as if my part had been so small it was pointless but after going for a long walk and a lunch talking with Rob who I think had initially felt the same but then we both agreed we actually achieved a huge amount for the period of our stay, we had helped families retrieve their loved ones. We had talked with local people and made friends with complete strangers who were unbelievably grateful for the English lady and the Scotcha! We had many strange looks from the Turkish and were asked many questions about who we were and why we were there and we received many more thanks and gratitude so I am proud of my time and my achievements and I am so much more appreciative of my own home and family and the simplest of things in life.

When Jo (SEPAR International COO) arrived in Turkey with her 8-man tents it was good to have some normality and female company (ha ha) and a big hug was gratefully received. We left the hotel early the following morning to drive back to Iskenderun to show Jo where we had spent our time and visit the site we had been working on. By this time the street where the Eda apartments once stood was empty, all that was left was piles of rubble and soldiers guarding what was left, it was a very sombre moment. The Yacht club only had a small number of older families still sleeping in there and had almost returned to normal bar the team of chefs led by Suzan’s son Emir, who had moved in to continue offering food. They had been asked to leave the church as it was structurally unsafe and they wanted the sacred ground for the community to be able to pray. Emir insisted on taking the SEPAR International team and our drivers for an official Donor as my nickname during my stay was Donna kebab and Emir wanted to show us that these are two very different types of food. We drove into the town centre to visit Emir’s friend for food, this was the only time I actually had a fleeting moment of panic, sat inside a building eating a donor then having a questioning moment in my head of what if there is another earthquake? how will I escape? Ok, so the door is too far away and there are too many people, but I am sat next to a huge glass window which may break so I can jump and run or smash it with a chair, but then I will be under the buildings that may collapse around it, it was such a strange feeling. The buildings in the centre of town had all sunk into the ground by approximately 50cm but life was very much carrying on as ‘normal’, what had previously been empty and bare was now bursting full of life, people shopping, sitting inside and outside of eateries as if nothing had ever happened. The huge cracks in the road and closed roads were just being avoided and driven around as it had always been that way.

When we arrived back in Silifke that evening, we all sat having our last meal by the beach when another big Earthquake hit, it was quite strong with the table and benches vibrating far more than any other ones we had felt previously but we were much further away this time. Families started running out of their homes and running into the little café that provided shelter in the single storey building next door, children crying, mothers trying to comfort and soothe them and get them back to sleep. A couple of locals came running in shouting Tsunami as I believe there had been a warning that this could happen. We all looked to the sea and at each other and said where is the safest place to go? ultimately no place there would have been safe, with tall building blocks around and the sea 50m away so we texted our families to tell them we were safe and that we would be home tomorrow. On our return to the hotel, the manager who knew our story introduced us to an older lady and her son who were sheltering in the hotel foyer. The son told us his mother was so heartbroken as she had lost 11 members of her family in the original earthquake and her son had pulled from the rubble her daughter and granddaughter who sadly passed away. I have never been more grateful to know I was going home to see my boys the following morning.

The journey home felt like forever, I was so tired physically and mentally, it’s surprisingly the toll the brain takes without you realising. Coming home was a huge relief to see my family and I didn’t care or sweat about the small stuff as the saying goes, I slept the best I ever have in my lifetime, the comfort of my bed and cuddles with my youngest child were everything, I didn’t care about the pots the boys had left on the side or any mess they had made, I was home! The following morning, I put my dressing gown on and had 2 cups of tea with milk and I sat on my sofa, the smallest of luxuries that we take for granted. I had the longest shower and shampooed and conditioned my hair, I used hair products, sprayed perfume and rubbed moisturiser on my skin, put my jewellery back on and dressed in my normal clothes not working attire. These are all things I would do daily without a care or thought in the world but today they were precious moments of being home, being with my family, having my Christmas decorations boxed away and my clothes in my wardrobe and having my life as before.

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