Rescuers Rush for Quake Survivors
By Dialogo April 01, 2010
More than 60 international urban search-and-rescue teams rushed to Haiti
after it was pummeled by the earthquake on January 12, 2010. Elite international
rescuers, security and medical personnel arrived first in the demolished capital
Port-au-Prince, working under extreme conditions to find survivors, according to the
Veteran urban search-and-rescue teams from Mexico, China, France, Israel,
Qatar and South Africa embodied the world’s urgent call-to-action to assist the
people of Haiti.
Mexico’s ‘Moles’ prove courageous
After a magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck Mexico City in 1985, one of the
world’s most respected search-and-rescue teams - the International Rescue Brigade of
Tlatelolco-Azteca - emerged from the ruins. Los Topos, or “The Moles,” was formed in
the absence of a professional rapid-response team as frantic residents of the
Tlatelolco community banded together to rescue their families and neighbors.
Almost 25 years later, Los Topos has three delegations in Mexico: in
Tlatelolco, Cancun and Vera Cruz. It also has a delegation in Buenos Aires,
Argentina, a volunteer Los Topos rescuer, Fernando Alvaro Bravo, told Diálogo. The
volunteers are trained by experts from Israel and France and have deployed to
disaster sites around the world, including New York City; San Salvador, El Salvador;
Taiwan; Bam, Iran; and Abruzzi, Italy. Equipped with mallets and knives as their
primary tools, they set out to join earthquake rescue missions using their own money
or through private donations.
“We are going to offer our best on behalf of the Mexican people,” Héctor
Méndez, one of the founders of Los Topos, told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
In January, a 25-member contingent equipped with sniffer dogs, first-aid
responders and a demolition crew arrived in Haiti within 48 hours. Another veteran
rescuer and group leader, Carlos Morales, worked alongside his 24-year old daughter,
as a show of family courage in the face of strangers’ despair.
In the two weeks following the earthquake, Los Topos rescued more than a
dozen victims, including Ena Zizi, a 69-year-old Haitian woman trapped beneath the
ruins of a church for seven days.
Six and a half weeks after Haiti’s quake, Los Topos rushed to the rescue
again after a magnitude 8.8 earthquake and subsequent tsunami ravaged
China takes on excavation effort
The China International Search and Rescue Team, the country’s main
earthquake-rescue organization, will invest almost $15 million this year to more
than double its capabilities, The Guardian newspaper reported. This investment
follows the magnitude 7.9 Sichuan earthquake that killed about 70,000 people in
China in 2008.
“We will be able to send more teams to operations overseas and that’s one of
the reasons we are expanding,” said Huang Jiafa, a division director at the Chinese
Earthquake Administration. Currently, China is the country with the most urban
search-and-rescue teams in the world, according to humanitarian news site ReliefWeb.
China’s 50-member rescue team arrived in Haiti within the 72 “golden hours” —
the most crucial time period for saving lives following natural disasters. The team
immediately began working upon arrival in Port-au-Prince’s Carrefour neighborhood,
one of the hardest-hit areas, according to the China Earthquake Administration, or
CEA. They retrieved more than 20 bodies.
At the ruins of the headquarters of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti,
the Chinese team recovered the bodies of seven staff members, including mission
chief Hedi Annabi and his chief deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa. They also dug up eight
of their own peacekeeping officers assigned to the mission before the earthquake.
Despite having sophisticated equipment, rescuers had to handle most of the
excavation at the U.N. building by hand because its position halfway up a hill
limited the use of machines, an official at the CEA told the Xinhua news agency.
China’s other contributions included a 40-member medical team and an
improvised mobile hospital, where about 2,500 injured people were treated, Jiafa
French team makes a miracle rescue
France demonstrated its solidarity with Haiti by immediately deploying three
military planes carrying 100 firefighters and gendarmes, in addition to humanitarian
The urban search-and-rescue teams from France worked incessantly to find
survivors even after the Haitian government called off the search, stating there was
little hope of finding anyone alive 11 days after the capital was reduced to rubble.
The rescuers stubbornly pressed on in favor of holding out for one last miracle
Amazingly, 15 days after the quake, rescuer Claude Fuilla walked along the
unstable roof of a collapsed home, heard the faint voice of 17-year-old Darlene
Etienne and spotted her dust-covered black hair in the rubble. The dying teenager
was rescued within 45 minutes, The Associated Press reported. “I don’t think she
could have survived even a few more hours,” Fuilla said.
Etienne’s rescue defied the odds of finding anyone alive after so long.
Authorities say it is rare for anyone to survive more than 72 hours without water,
let alone more than two weeks, but she reportedly had access to water from a
Israeli field hospital saves thousands
Battlefield experience has made the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, National
Search and Rescue Unit an international elite team. Since its inception in 1983, the
unit has worked in disaster zones in Mexico, Argentina, Armenia, Kenya, Turkey and
A 220-member IDF medical and rescue team arrived in Haiti within 36 hours
after the earthquake. It began its operations near the ruins of the U.N.
headquarters in Port-au-Prince and worked with local authorities to find survivors
in other disaster-stricken areas. The team also built a field hospital with
operating rooms and a maternity and children’s ward, within a record time of 10
hours. The medical team treated more than 1,100 patients, conducted 319 successful
surgeries and delivered 16 babies, including three by Cesarean section according to
the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“The sights here are very difficult and you need a lot of mental fortitude,”
said Gali Wiest, the delegation’s head nurse, as reported in Israel’s Haaretz
newspaper. “We’ve already taken in 87 children, most in moderate to serious
condition; there have been a few operations and amputations, and they keep coming.”
Wiest spoke of the survival of an infant boy who was trapped under the rubble
for five days and lay in a state of shock in the children’s ward: “His parents
aren’t here — perhaps they are dead — but the Israeli nurses caress him and give him
a warm bottle of milk.”
The IDF team concluded its two-week stay on January 27, 2010, and patients
needing further care, as well as orphans and premature babies, were transferred to
other field hospitals and to the U.S. Navy Ship Comfort.
Emirate assistance beyond Arab world
Qatar’s Internal Security Force, which provided emergency relief after the
2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Mauritania floods in 2007, also provided support to
Haiti. It was the first time the Gulf emirate deployed an urban search-and-rescue
team outside the Arab world, The National newspaper reported.
“This is a long way for us to come and the first time we have left our
region,” Capt. Mubarak al-Kaabi, the team’s leader, told The National. “But help
means helping everybody, not just Arabic people.”
A 26-person rescue team of soldiers, police and medical professionals scoured
the Haitian capital for survivors. The team also set up a makeshift field hospital
on the outskirts of the city, in Cité Soleil, where doctors treated more than 500
victims. They performed rudimentary operations, set broken limbs and cleaned
“We’re putting limbs in splints and giving out antibiotics, but some of the
infections are very bad and need to be treated many times,” Mootaz Ali, an
orthopedic surgeon, told The National. “Some patients are not even able to take the
antibiotics we give them because they don’t have access to water.”
South African efforts undeterred
A 10-member team from the South African Gift of the Givers Foundation, the
largest African disaster relief organization, arrived in Haiti three days after the
They worked an area that no team had yet reached, Xinhua reported. “The
devastation was mind boggling, with no sign of life, only a litter of corpses and
the sick stench of decomposed bodies along the way,” foundation chairman Imtiaz
Sooliman said. “The first stop was a Catholic mission, totally destroyed; five
bodies were recovered. At another site nine more bodies were recovered,” Sooliman
The rescuers, skilled in disaster response, search and rescue, and advanced
life support, traveled by land from the Dominican Republic, and were later escorted
by U.N. helicopters when road access was blocked.
They extricated five survivors from a collapsed hospital in Port-au-Prince.
“After 2.5 hours of intense activity, team leader Ahmed Bham, together with our
Mexican partners, rescued a 60-year-old lady, she being the first of five
survivors,” the organization said in a statement. The team also cleared the hospital
of 600 bodies so it could resume operations.