Interview'She had whole weight of several stories leaning on her hip'

‘She helped us, told us when to do what’: Israeli doc describes rescuing Turkish girl

Pediatrician Itai Basel is taking part in his first delegation to a disaster zone with United Hatzalah. ‘Training is one thing. Being a part of this is something else,’ he says

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Dr. Itai Basel takes part in the rescue effort to extract a 15-year-old from a collapsed building in Marash, Turkey, on February 8, 2023 (United Hatzalah)
Dr. Itai Basel takes part in the rescue effort to extract a 15-year-old from a collapsed building in Marash, Turkey, on February 8, 2023 (United Hatzalah)

MARASH, Turkey — When her fourth-floor apartment came crashing down to the ground before dawn on Monday morning, the 15-year-old girl inside became trapped, her leg pinned beneath concrete slabs. But she was alive.

She remained there, stuck beneath the ruins of her home in Marash in southern Turkey, for two and a half days, until an Israeli rescue team was able to reach her and delicately pull her out of the rubble following a more than 12-hour excavation effort.

Dr. Itai Basel, a pediatrician from outside Jerusalem, helped organize the final extraction, both from inside the tunnel that was dug to reach her and outside, coordinating the medics and rescue workers so that the girl could receive medical care as soon as she came out. An Israel Defense Forces paramedic had been coordinating the extraction for the first 12 hours, but the teams wanted a doctor to be present for the final effort.

“The extraction was extremely difficult. It was a difficult area to reach,” Basel told The Times of Israel, speaking from a base camp outside of Marash. “They dug a hole in order to go under her and get to her. And they were not sure exactly what was the right thing to do, how to release her from under the element she was buried under. And that’s what I was called to assist with. I suggested we dig in from under her and then release her a little bit, then we could move her,”

Marash was one of the cities hit hardest by Monday morning’s earthquakes in southern Turkey and northern Syria. The center of the city was particularly devastated, with nearly every other building completely flattened and the rest seriously damaged.

The building the girl was in was one of two eight-story buildings that came down in the tremors. The other two buildings on the street, located across from a large shopping mall, had massive cracks in them.

Israeli and local rescue teams working at the site of a building collapse in Marash, Turkey, February 8, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“She had been on the fourth floor,” Basel said. “She was a very brave, an extremely brave woman. She helped us. She told us when to do what; she would say, “Don’t do it yet. Wait, wait. Then, three, two, one, go, go, go. And she was encouraging the team not to stop and to continue the extraction. It was amazingly brave. And after quite a long time, they were able to actually release her and extract her,” he said.

“The medical team of the IDF Home Front Command had done everything they could to keep her warm, to keep her hydrated, which is extremely important in crush injuries, because she was crushed by a huge element. She had the whole weight of several stories just leaning on her hip, on her thigh. The crush injury to her left leg was extensive,” Basel said.

A 15-year-old girl is loaded into an ambulance after she was pulled from a building collapse in Marash, Turkey, February 8, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

As the girl came out of the rubble on a specialized sled used in rescue operations, she was wrapped in thermal Mylar blankets to help fight hypothermia. She was loaded immediately into a waiting ambulance and taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. The girl lost her left leg, the one that had been crushed in the collapse, and sustained other injuries and infections — but she was alive.

“One of our medics, Yossi Amar, and I went with her to the hospital in the ambulance, and we took her to the trauma unit where she was treated. She had remained stable throughout the extraction. She was treated in the ambulance as well, and in the hospital she was transported to the operating room. When we left, she was still stable. And as of this morning, she’s been treated and she’s remaining stable,” Basel said.

Dr. Itai Basel is seen during rescue operations in the city of Marash, Turkey, on February 9, 2023. (United Hatzalah)

This is Basel’s first time on a delegation to a disaster zone. A native of the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion, he works as a pediatrician for the Maccabi HMO and at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital. A few years ago, he started volunteering with the United Hatzalah emergency response organization, mostly responding to calls from his hometown. In addition, Basel performs reserve duty in a search-and-rescue unit of the IDF’s Home Front Command.

When United Hatzalah said it was looking for people to go to Turkey to help with the earthquake relief, he said, he dropped everything to go.

“I volunteered to come here. I left my family at home. I’m missing my daughter’s dance recital. We all came here to help with this awful disaster. There’s just unbelievable wreckage,” he said.

Basel said nothing could have prepared him for the devastation that he’s seen in Marash.

“I’m a pediatrician, and I did my internship at Hadassah Hospital Mount Scopus. And you do get a lot of individual patients who are severely injured — but seeing so many injuries at once, it’s just overwhelming. It’s a huge disaster beyond what I imagined before coming here. I also trained in the Home Front Command as an extraction team doctor. So I do have the training, but training is one thing, and being a part of this is just a different thing altogether. I’m learning a lot here and I will pass this knowledge to the people I work with back home to prepare them for anything that might happen at home,” he said.

Dr. Itai Basel, center-right, stands with other medical professionals who brought a 15-year-old girl to the hospital after she was pulled from the rubble of an apartment building in Marash, Turkey, on February 8, 2023. (United Hatzalah)

Basel said his delegation is continuing with the search-and-rescue operations, as there is still a chance of finding people alive under the rubble.

“Wherever we see that we have a good chance to be of help, we go and we make an effort there,” he said.

Throughout the day on Wednesday, the United Hatzalah team was focused on one building — around the corner from where the 15-year-old girl was rescued — where a man was trapped.

IDF and United Hatzalah search and rescue experts work at the site of a collapsed building in Marash, Turkey, on February 8, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

After a full day of digging, it became clear that it would take a lot more work to get the man out, so they handed off the site to the IDF Home Front Command. After several more hours of work, in the early hours of Thursday morning, the IDF rescue team pulled the 65-year-old out alive.

“After a full day, they reached the person that was there. They are still at the site, continuing the extraction because there is indication of more living people in that same building,” Basel said.

“The job that all the teams here are doing is amazing. Everyone is doing everything they can, 100% of the time. It’s not surprising to see that everybody is giving their best, but it’s just that it’s really fulfilling to know that something this good can come after 20, 30 hours of work,” he said.

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