Man finds earthquake survivors under rubble in Turkey after 10 days

We followed him to a semi-collapsed building consisting of a basement and three floors. It looked like a war scene. With the help of a machine, we broke through one of the walls and reached in.

  • 1 year ago
  • March 3, 2023
7 min read
A devastating earthquake destroyed a large portion of Turkey and Syria on February 6, 2023. An Argentine humanitarian aid group went to retrieve survivors from the rubble. A devastating earthquake destroyed a large portion of Turkey and Syria on February 6, 2023. An Argentine humanitarian aid group went to retrieve survivors from the rubble. | Photo courtesy of Juan Yarte's brigade
Juan Yarte is from the Lujan province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has worked as a sergeant in the special rescue brigade of the USAR federal police for 20 years. He earned international accreditation that allowed him to aid survivors in Turkey after the devastating earthquake.
Early Monday morning, on February 6, 2023, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Turkey and Syria, followed by multiple aftershocks. Two weeks later, on February 20, two strong aftershocks, measuring a magnitude of 6.4 and 5.8, hit the already devastated Hatay province. The earthquakes caused terrible damage: over 45,000 people lost their lives and tens of thousands injured in both countries. Almost a million Turkish residents lost their homes and entire cities were destroyed. The humanitarian aid group Casco Blacos, together with the USAR Brigade of the Argentine Federal Police and the support of SINAGIR (National System of Risk Management), rescued three survivors in the city of Hatay 10 days after the quake.

HATAY, Turkey — Ten days after the earthquake ravaged Turkey, I continued to roam through the rubble in the freezing cold, searching for survivors. I work as a brigade officer in Argentina, but my international accreditation allowed me to rush to Turkey to help with response efforts.

On February 14, 2023, the search began to feel hopeless. [Most research indicates the human body can only go 3-5 days without water.] Ten days in, we discovered three people trapped in a semi-collapsed building, buried between two floors. As the only brigade to find survivors alive after such a long time, it felt like a miracle. We called in two rescue dogs and professional excavators, dug a hole, and got them out.

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Families of Turkish people applauded us as we boarded our plane

On February 6, 2023, the devastating earthquake hit Turkey and Syria, causing damages in over 10 provinces. The incident claimed the lives of 44,218 people in Turkey alone. Thousands remained trapped under rubble for days in the cold before help arrived. Upon hearing the news, I felt heart-broken and restless, I wanted to help. 

On Tuesday, February 7, one day after the earthquake hit, I received a phone call from my superior. He asked me if I had an up-to-date passport and if I felt fit to travel as soon as possible. They informed me I would leave for Turkey in the next couple days. 

I packed my things that night as a rush of adrenaline ran through my body. Ever since I traveled to Cromañón, Barracas, and Rosario on rescue missions, I felt eager to go back out there and to save people. I looked forward to arriving in Turkey and being useful. I also understood the risks I could face. The situation remained very dangerous, and the thought of leaving my three-year-old daughter and partner behind bothered me.

We cried as we said our goodbyes. On the way to the airport, my hands began to sweat. My brigade boarded the plane. As we made our way to our seats, the passengers began to applaud us, their eyes filled with tears. They thanked us for our bravery as we filed in. Most of the people on board had relatives directly affected by the tragedy. We represented hope ot them, and their response touched me.

It looked like a post-apocalyptic war zone  

When I arrived in Turkey, I saw the horrible suffering everywhere. Despite that, people treated our brigade with so much love and gratitude. Once our equipment arrived, I boarded a bus and traveled three hours into the disaster zone. The beautiful landscape suddenly began to transform into an apocalyptic scene. The magnitude of the event hit me. Not yet at the center of the disaster, I could already see chaos everywhere.

We gathered at camp – a protected place situated to guarantee the staff’s safety. From our spot far from the rubble, where you could see the snow-capped mountains in the distance. We slept in sleeping bags in tents. The temperature fell to one degree Celsius at night, and a high of seven degrees during the day. The first few nights, I could not sleep, and my body felt completely frozen. I kept thinking about the survivors under the rubble. They had no protection against the cold. During the day, as I worked, I felt five or six earthquakes. Though mild, they scared me. Everything moved as we hid in safe areas to protect ourselves until the earthquakes passed.

Finding buried survivors amidst the debris 

During my first two rescue missions, I checked surrounding areas for structural damage. After that, I began working the areas where people were buried alive. I made my way through the crowd repeating the words “arama kurtama” or “rescue search.” They allowed us to pass. It looked like the entire city had collapsed completely, reduced to a ghost town by the earthquake. Any building that remained standing appeared to be tilted from 30 to 45 degrees. It felt gut-wrenching.

The earthquake completely destroyed the province of Hatay, Turkey. Over 10 million residents lost their homes and all their belongings. | Photo courtesy of Juan Yarte’s brigade

I stood there, among people desperately looking for loved ones amidst the debris. They cried and begged us to find their relatives. These people lost their homes, possessions, and families. They lost everything. Sometimes we pulled out lifeless bodies and needed to find the family to notify them. We made sure to remove the bodies carefully and respectfully, covering them with a blanket. I felt heart-broken every time. My group recovered 27 bodies in total. We worked with excavators and used dogs to search. Two of the dogs, Indio and Akira, slept in our camp as part of our team.

On February 14, a man on a motorcycle arrived. He said he heard survivors nearby. We followed him to a semi-collapsed building consisting of a basement and three floors. It looked like a war scene. People remained trapped between the ground and first floor. With the help of a machine, we broke through one of the walls and reached in. I remember when the team grabbed the arms of the survivors and pulled them out. I stood in shock for a few seconds, never imagining survivors could be alive after ten days. We became the only brigade to find survivors alive at that point, and we cried in celebration.

The images remain vivid in my mind

A few days after the harrowing rescue, we left for home, traveling through Istanbul for a night before returning to Argentina. At the hotel, I rested and bathed in hot water to ease my sore muscles. It felt strange to be back in civilization. I needed time to process everything and recover, emotionally and physically. I ached to go back and do more, but we lacked the resources to continue. My brigade received a plaque of honor for our work. Though I felt incredibly proud, I could not shake the images in my mind.

Members of the Argentine team walk through the rubble left by the earthquake in Turkey. | Photo courtesy of Juan Yarte’s brigade

I could still see the bodies being dragged out, cities completely destroyed, and family members devastated. I carried their suffering with me and keep them in my thoughts even now. When the plane landed in Argentina, friends and family gathered with banners reading “Welcome home!” Tears flowed as everyone hugged one another.

I kissed my partner and daughter, holding them for as long as possible. Seeing them safe, and knowing they had a roof over their heads, filled me with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. This journey will remain engraved in my mind forever. When I think about the people we rescued from the earthquake in Turkey, my heart fills up with joy. Though I work in dangerous conditions, I live for my job. When I hear I siren, goosebumps cover my body. Nothing feels as incredible as saving lives.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.


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