Disasters & Accidents

A dog’s sense of smell, the last hope for earthquake survivors

By Ilya U. Topper

Antakya, Turkey, Feb 10 (EFE).- Mia and Farah, a pair of Belgian Malinois, play with an empty bottle on a lawn after hours in the back of a truck and look to their handlers for food, as any pet would.

But moments later they leap into a high stakes game of life and death, as the dogs are crucial in helping search for survivors among the ruins of Antakya, one of the hardest-hit cities by the earthquakes that struck southeastern Turkey on Monday.

“The dogs learn to look for people trapped in the rubble through play, for them it’s no different to looking for a stick,” a member of the Ericam team, the Emergency and Immediate Response Service of the Community of Madrid, which has been in the area since Tuesday, told Efe.

The group, which is made up of four dogs and their respective owners, as well as around 20 firefighters trained in tracing survivors of disasters and several health workers, first helped rescue efforts in Iskenderun, which has also been hit by several landslides.

There they rescued a man who was trapped between the walls of a building for more than 48 hours on Wednesday, after hearing his cries for help.

It took several hours to reach him, because there was hardly any space between the floor and ceiling, and holes had to be drilled from floor to floor to climb up from below, firefighters say.

Knowing where to look is important, and it is usually the neighbors themselves who alert the team after hearing voices coming from the rubble.

“First we do an inspection ourselves, call out and knock to see if there is a response. Up to about three meters deep we can hear noises. If we don’t detect anything, the dogs come, they are trained to trace the smell of a living person up to seven meters. And if that doesn’t work either, we place the geophones, high-precision sensors,” David Barderas, a member of the team, told Efe.

The dogs are trained to react only to smells of living people; they ignore corpses, he explains, and the team is not dedicated to recovering the dead.

In Antakya on Friday, five days after the disaster struck, hopes are fading but have not been abandoned completely, since the low temperatures are tempered by the layers of rubble and the cold makes people dehydrate less quickly, explains Kike Arribas, another Ericam firefighter.

But the work among the ruins is more difficult than usual, as the extent of the disaster is enormous: entire city blocks have been razed.

Everywhere there is already heavy machinery working to remove concrete blocks and free at least some of the streets that have been completely covered with rubble and cars crushed by the fallen buildings.

The noise of the bulldozers, along with the screeching ambulances making their way through the trucks and rescue cars, as well as the occasional generator, makes hearing calls from survivors extremely difficult.

And in front of every mountain of rubble, neighbors warm themselves with a campfire, a solemn vigil at the place where they lost their loved ones.

“Come here, please, here,” they shout as the Spanish team passes by, but it is impossible to attend to everyone in this desperate field of ruins.

Mia and Farah jump on the concrete slabs, sniff among the twisted iron and finally get into a hole that has been left open, but they come out after a while without result.

Two firefighters crawl in between the slabs and call out numerous times, registering vibrations on their sensors, but again to no apparent avail.

“Nothing,” is the conclusion. They move on to the next point, barely a hundred meters further, where someone thinks he has heard noises. Perhaps it is true: hope is the last thing that will be lost.EFE


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