Reporter's Notebook

Israeli rescuer who helped in ’99 earthquakes returns to Turkey to save lives

Lt. Col. Golan Landsberg’s teams have pulled several people from the rubble since arriving early Tuesday morning, including a 2-year-old boy and a married couple, he says

Judah Ari Gross

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

Lt. Col. Golan Landsberg, left, stands with other members of his search-and-rescue unit outside a collapsed building in Marash, Turkey, on February 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
Lt. Col. Golan Landsberg, left, stands with other members of his search-and-rescue unit outside a collapsed building in Marash, Turkey, on February 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

MARASH, Turkey — Lt. Col. (res.) Golan Landsberg is an old hand at search-and-rescue work, having taken part in nearly a dozen Israeli missions around the world over the past 25 years, including two in Turkey in 1999 after massive earthquakes struck the country in August and November that year.

Landsberg, the commander of an Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command search-and-rescue unit that landed in Turkey earlier this week, said the destruction caused by those earthquakes 24 years ago was similar to the one that leveled large swaths of the country on Monday, perhaps even a bit worse, though he acknowledges that this may be colored by his lack of experience from that time.

“This might be my perspective because I was younger and less experienced, but it looked like a huge, massive disaster — similar to what we see here today — but in my view, it was of an even higher magnitude. Still, when you go on the street here, in the center of the damaged area, it’s similar to the destruction that I saw then,” he told The Times of Israel on Thursday morning.

Nearly 20,000 people were killed in the August 1999 tremor, similar to the death toll from Monday’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake so far, though both of these are likely underestimates.

Landsberg and his unit are part of a massive Israeli delegation that landed in Turkey this week to assist in the initial search-and-rescue efforts and is now gearing up to open a massive field hospital to provide large-scale medical care to both those directly injured in Monday’s earthquake and to regular patients in order to ease the burden on Turkey’s hospitals.

They landed in southern Turkey early Tuesday morning and made their way to the city of Marash, one of the cities hit hardest by the earthquake, where they immediately set to work.

For the first day and a half, Landsberg worked around the clock in Marash, going from site to site, extracting people from the rubble.

Lt. Col. Golan Landsberg speaks to members of his search-and-rescue unit in southern Turkey, on February 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

“Last night was the first night that I spent here on the base. Before that, I was working around the clock at different sites,” said Landsberg, a reserve officer who normally works as an executive for Hewlett-Packard in Israel.

As of Thursday night, Israeli rescue teams had pulled 17 people from the rubble, including several children. Landsberg said his team has played a role in several of them, either in the initial stages or in the final extraction. That included the rescue of a two-year-old boy, who was pulled from the rubble on Wednesday. He also led an ultimately bittersweet rescue effort to extract a husband and wife from a collapsed building.

“They were trapped together under the rubble. Both were alive, and we were able to take out the man, but unfortunately, he died on the way to the hospital. About 12 hours later, we were able to take out the wife, and she is okay. It was one of the most complex rescue operations that we performed. They required a lot of medical attention,” he said.

As of writing, more than three and a half days have passed since the initial earthquake in the predawn hours of Monday morning. As more time passes, the prospects of finding living people beneath the rubble grow smaller and smaller, especially as the freezing cold nights put those trapped inside at greater risk of exposure and hypothermia.

“From past experience, we know that weather conditions have a major impact on survival. Very hot temperatures and extremely cold temperatures are, as expected, not very helpful for survival. Nevertheless, under the rubble, the temperature is different. And if you have the right cavity and you are not injured severely, you might survive a few days,” Landsberg said.

“We probably have a few days, a week maybe, when we’ll still be relevant, but chances are reduced exponentially. I guess a few days from now we will need to conclude our search efforts,” he said.

IDF search and rescue teams begin operating in a bid to find survivors after an earthquake in Turkey on February 7, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

In the meantime, Landsberg is looking to maximize his unit’s time, to deploy quickly, and to find the sites with the best chances of pulling people out alive.

“We are always thinking, ‘what will be the next mission,’ because time is of the essence and you want to make sure that you are very effective, that you are not waiting. If you can act, you act. You don’t want to wait. Waiting is a waste of time,” he said.

There is no shortage of work for search-and-rescue teams in Marash. The earthquakes destroyed whole neighborhoods, flattening entire apartment buildings and seriously damaging those still standing.

As rescuers work on one site, civilians will try to grab them and get them to help extricate someone from a neighboring building. But in some cases, people try to get help to retrieve the bodies of those killed in the collapse, not living people. While this is profoundly, critically important work, it is outside the purview of the search-and-rescue units. So how do they know to tell the difference?

“The way we do it is we use mostly human intelligence, so to speak. We interview people and listen to what people are asking us to do. But we cross-reference that with different sources that we have, and we try to focus on places that we know for sure that there are people who are alive inside because we want to be effective,” he said.

IDF search and rescue teams work to find survivors after an earthquake in Turkey on February 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

In the coming days, Landsberg and his unit will wrap up their work and return to Israel, making room for medical personnel and other professionals suited for the type of work that comes after the immediate rescue efforts.

“That is quite standard for us in terms of this kind of delegation. We ramp up fast because, for us, the first hours are critical. So we deploy quickly with much less heavy equipment and fewer people,” he said. The field hospital “will follow behind us; they will move more slowly, but with a greatly increased capacity [for medical care] and they will leave later.”

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