Turkey earthquake: Welsh firefighter says seeing bodies 'piled up on road' is 'worst moment'

  • Emma Atcherley crawls through the rubble in Turkey following the earthquake.

A Welsh firefighter has said seeing bodies "piled up on the side of the road" is one of the hardest parts of her rescue mission following the catastrophic earthquake which hit Turkey and Syria over a week ago.

Emma Atcherley, from Bedwas near Caerphilly, who was deployed to Turkey through the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, described the “rollercoaster” of emotions of working in a disaster zone and that “no amount of training” could have prepared her for what she would face.

The 42-year-old was one of five Welsh firefighters deployed to Turkey as part of the UK Government’s response to the earthquake which struck on Monday 6 February.

Emma, who has been working as a Crew Manager for South Wales Fire and Rescue Service at Cardiff Central Station for 19 years, said the scale of the destruction had shocked even the most seasoned firefighters.

“Turkey is my first deployment with UK-ISAR and no amount of training could ever prepare you for how tough life is on the ground. The training prepares you for how to set up base and how things work operationally, but there are very few places you can train that could give you a true sense of what it’s like.

Emma is one of 77 search and rescue specialists from 14 fire and rescue services across the UK. Credit: Commonwealth & Development Office

“Anything we work on that is quite true to real life are made safe before we train on them, whereas here we were going into buildings that were not safe and making tunnels not really knowing when the next aftershock might happen. That level of anxiety you just can’t prepare for.

“Nor the level of intensity because you constantly feel like you are on a stopwatch and up against the clock. You’ve got such a limited window to make a real difference and pull people out alive. The scale of the devastation shocked even colleagues who have been on numerous deployments”, Emma added.

It comes as the death toll in Turkey exceeds 31,643 and 5,714 in Syria.

Opening up about the experience so far, Emma explained: “I don’t think I’ve cried yet but throughout the day you go to a work site and you are up and you are down, and you are up and then you are down. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster.

“The worst moments have been seeing the deceased being pulled out of the rubble. A lot of the local teams have been working with bull dozers and have been taking deceased out of the rubble. Seeing them piled up at the side of the road and the grieving families – that’s difficult. It’s so sad.

“Also giving people bad news that there’s nothing we can do after we’ve detected no signs of life, those are the worst moments. Outside most collapsed buildings, there’s relatives sat just waiting which is quite hard to see that level of suffering.

“They want us to bring their loved ones out alive or dead. We are a live rescue team so we have had to explain we can’t do anything if we can’t find signs of life, which is really hard. Unfortunately, there are more of the low moments than the highs”, Emma added.

Emma is one of 77 search and rescue specialists from 14 fire and rescue services across the UK who have been working day and night to rescue people from the rubble.

She was also part of the UK Emergency Medical Team team on Saturday (February 11) that pulled out two survivors who had been trapped for 120 hours after a building collapsed, as well as rescuing a 90-year-old woman on the UK team’s first day and another man the following day.

Emma is looking forward to an emotional reunion with husband Leon and daughters Florence and Martha.

“It is so good when you pull someone out. When you know that there is potentially life to save, you get your hopes up and you are desperate to help and get them out. When you realise that it is a genuine possibility, it’s a really nice feeling.

“The reaction of the families when we’ve saved lives has been really heart-warming, seeing their relief and knowing that we’ve changed someone’s life. Generations of families are going to be around now because of some of those rescues”, Emma said.

One rescue of a man and woman trapped in a stairwell took the team 17 to 19 hours to complete, as Emma explained: “I was part of the first shift from two o’clock until about 1.30am – we were there almost 12 hours before handing over to the other team.

“It was really difficult for the team to walk away knowing that you are probably not going to see those people come out, having started on the rescue.

“But that’s where the strength of the team leaders comes in, to look after our welfare when we’re not really looking after it ourselves. Bringing in a rested team to take over which was the right thing to do. That is what teamwork is all about. Everyone plays their part.”

Emma highlighted how much more goes into a rescue than the clips which are seen online, including support from families, making sure kit and communication is correct, as well as people ensuring workers get a hot shower when they return to base.

“We couldn’t be here without the support of our home brigades and the UK Government reacting to get us out so quickly. It’s not just the people who are in a hole scraping rubble, there’s so much more going on.”

The specialists have been working in the town of Antakya in the Hatay Province since last Tuesday (February 7) after being immediately scrambled from across the UK.

The 42-year-old said she is already looking forward to an emotional reunion with her husband Leon and daughters Florence, 10, and Martha, 8: “I’m not sure how much my kids understand of what’s going on. I know that at school they watch Newsround, so they will have seen something. I also know that their teacher did a little talk on me being part of the UK Government’s response and what the team were doing.

“I know the kids are very proud of me, but they don’t like me leaving and they were not happy that I was going. Any time I’ve spoken to them it’s very much been ‘When are you coming home?’.

“I’m sure there will be lots of screaming and tears if I manage to pick them up from school when I get back.”