Just hours after returning home as a member of Israel’s search-and-rescue team from earthquake-ravaged Turkey, Dr. Eugene Liebovitz said the enormity of the event was unimaginable.
“You have no idea of the dimension of this tragedy,” he said in a phone interview from Beersheba. “It’s huge. We saw incredible things. You see death and ruins, death and ruins; people without homes or food. … And on the other hand, you have the feeling that you are doing something for them. You have no idea how incredibly happy I and my team were when we were able to make a rescue.”
During their six days in Turkey, the 385-member Israeli team rescued 12 people — including a 9-year-old Israeli girl visiting the country — and uncovered 146 bodies that were buried beneath mounds of rubble. By Tuesday — one week after the earthquake struck northwestern Turkey — the Turkish government said that 12,500 people had been killed, 42,000 injured and 200,000 left homeless. Turkish media put the number still missing at between 30,000 and 35,000, and the Turkish government asked a United Nations relief agency in Geneva for another 45,000 body bags.
At the request of the World Health Organization, Israel kept behind 75 medical personnel and security guards to continue operating a field hospital for at least a month in the city of Adapazari. Among those remaining are two doctors from the Soroka Medical Center in the Negev, where Liebovitz is a senior pediatrician and a pediatric and infectious disease specialist.
Leading one of the Israeli rescue teams in Golcuk was Capt. Ariel Blitz, 24, who said in a phone interview that he had served with the rescue team last year in Nairobi, Kenya, and in several other operations. But he said the scope of the disaster in Turkey made a comparison with the other rescues impossible.
“You drive in the street and see hundreds of buildings collapsed and who knows how many people buried there,” he said, adding that rescuers had to contend with an oppressive heat and the smell of bodies.
One of his most memorable moments occurred when Turkish family members summoned him to the ruins of a building where a father and two young boys could be heard trapped in the rubble.
“I went there and actually heard the man,” said Blitz. “I think he was 50 or 55 and he was buried on his bed and there were three floors on him. His leg was trapped.”
He said the Israeli team worked seven hours before freeing the man and that they were also able to free the two young boys.
“That was a very exciting moment for the good,” he said. “But the last day we were there we worked on another building and the last bodies we took out were those of two young boys, brothers 4 and 5 years old. That was not easy. To see two young boys who never hurt anyone and who died in 45-seconds — that is something you never forget.”
He said there was little chance of finding the boys alive but that he kept remembering finding the other boys alive just two days earlier.
“You never lose hope,” said Blitz. “In that kind of work if you lose hope, you cannot work. The only thing that gives you power to work is hope.”
Blitz praised the local people and the Turkish military for providing the manpower needed to do the hard work of digging through the rubble until the Israeli team could move in to handle the delicate rescue operations.
“We knew there was a big chance for a big aftershock and when you are in the rubble in a small cave you created for yourself, that is something that is always in your mind,” he said. “But when there is hope of finding live people, you take risks.”
Liebovitz, 47, said one of his most memorable moments came while he was working with the rescue team on Monday in the town of Cinarcick at about 10 a.m. Suddenly, a Turkish rescue team nearby called them for help.
“They had been digging and digging and suddenly they heard a voice,” Liebovitz said. “They didn’t have any mechanical or technical equipment, nor any instruments, and so they approached our team for help.”
The Israeli team rushed to the site and listened for the voice to “decide the position of the person, the depth of the noise, and in terms of mechanics how best to get the patient out as quickly as possible,” said Liebovitz. “It took only some 20 minutes.”
The person trapped in the rubble for some 170 hours was a 4-year-old boy, Ismail Cimen.
“He was very lucky,” said Liebovitz. “Other than an intravenous line for fluid because of dehydration, he didn’t need any massive medical treatment at that moment. … I was extremely surprised [he was alive], but it happens. His position in the hall of his home was such that he had some air to breathe and he was not compressed by anything, so they could take him out easily.”
Although elated about the rescue, Liebovitz said he had little time to think about it when the child was brought to him.
“I had to make a quick decision regarding his medical condition. You have to be cool and try not to be sentimental. Your job is to save a life and you have to treat the patient. After everything was over, you have time to talk to your friends and give in to sentiment.”
Before leaving, Israeli and Turkish rescuers held a moving memorial service in Cinarcick for 11 Israeli tourists and thousands of Turks killed in the disaster. The event was broadcast on Turkish television. The Israeli team was the first from a foreign nation to arrive in Turkey and it was among the last to leave.
Although Liebovitz has been a member of the search and rescue team since 1983, he said this was his first mission. He said that when he returned home Tuesday, he was greeted by his wife and two sons, 11 and 9.
“They are very proud of me,” he said of his sons. “For them, there is a new hero at home. But you know, I am not a hero.”