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Sniffer dogs offer hope in waning rescue efforts in Turkey

Peter Pan, a dog that is part of a USAID rescue crew in Turkey, scrambles over piles of debris, sniffing for the scent of any survivors stuck inside.
Jason Beaubien/NPR
Peter Pan, a dog that is part of a USAID rescue crew in Turkey, scrambles over piles of debris, sniffing for the scent of any survivors stuck inside.

A U.S.-based search and rescue team that's flown to Turkey in response to the earthquakes has just one goal: to find people alive, days after the initial 7.8 magnitude quake struck the region on Monday, February 6.

"We're here to effect the rescues of people deeply entombed in reinforced concrete structures," says John Morrison with USAID's Fairfax, Virginia International Urban Search and Rescue Team.

"And we brought all the tools we need to make those [rescues] happen."

The tools include concrete-breaking equipment, powered handsaws, sophisticated listening devices, specialized cameras and highly trained dogs.

The team of 150 arrived in Adiyaman, Turkey, on Thursday morning on a dedicated Air Force C-17 transport plane from Dover Air Force Base.

They quickly set up a base camp on a soccer field with their own field tents, generators and satellite equipment. They even brought their own toilet tents.

"We don't want to be a burden on the community," says Morrison, the spokesperson for the team, half of whom are from Virginia and the other half from Los Angeles County Search and Rescue. "So we bring everything we need, including food, water, shelter, power, all the rescue equipment, all the medical equipment."

Members of the International Urban Search and Rescue Team at work in Adiyaman, Turkey.
/ Jason Beaubien/NPR
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Jason Beaubien/NPR
Members of the International Urban Search and Rescue Team at work in Adiyaman, Turkey.

This is a race against the clock, says rescue specialist Mike Kovach on Friday, more than four days after the first powerful quake hit the region. The temperatures have been dropping below freezing at night. Many residents —and some officials — say that they've given up hope of finding anyone else alive. But Kovach says in other quakes people have been pulled out of the rubble more than a week after the disaster struck.

When Marc Campet leads one of their canine units into the center of Adiyaman on Friday, they're mobbed by residents who want them to search various demolished buildings.

The team got a report that there may be people still alive in a debris pile of what used to be a five-story apartment. Locals say three people were found alive at the site earlier in the day. Campet's crew of four humans and a dog checks that the wreckage is stable, then the dog, named Peter Pan, scrambles over the pile, sniffing along the surface.

"You'll see that he's going back and forth and his search pattern is getting tighter and tighter as it gets closer to the pile," Campet says, as he watches Peter Pan work.

Search dogs try to hone in on specific smells, he says.

"They do also scent elimination," Campet says. "They go and smell other people to eliminate sources. If anyone has been close to the pile, the dogs make a mental note that that person is not what I'm looking for. That person is out here with me."

Paul Serzan, one of the K-9 search and rescue specialists on the team, says the dogs can differentiate between people who dead and people who are alive. They can also tell the difference between the scent of someone who's been out in the fresh air and someone who's been confined.

"Everybody gives off scent, no matter if [you] just came out of the shower or you haven't showered in days," Serzan says. "We give off scent from decomposing cells in our body." He says they train their search and rescue dogs to find specific concentrated scents.

"As you're entombed, you build up scent," Serzan says about people trapped in a collapsed building. "You can almost think of it as like a fire inside of a room. The smoke builds up and then will eventually leak out of the eaves, the roofs or through a window. As your scent gets contained, it builds up. It gets stronger. So we train [the dogs] to find that that strong scent."

With thousands of people still missing, these search dogs can answer the crucial question: Where in the vast fields of rubble might people still be alive?

Peter Pan, a dog that is part of USAID's rescue crew in Turkey, searches for survivors almost five days after the earthquake.
/ Jason Beaubien/NPR
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Jason Beaubien/NPR
Peter Pan, a dog that is part of USAID's rescue crew in Turkey, searches for survivors almost five days after the earthquake.

The apartment's debris field covers half of a city block. A group of Turkish miners are trying to access an area on the far side of the rubble. Another group of men using a backhoe are extracting bodies from a section of the rubble adjacent to where the USAID team is working. They zip the corpses into black bags and load them into the back of a small pickup truck.

The dog pokes his nose in crevices. He crawls into a hole but then emerges showing no sign that he's detected anything.

Mike Kovach says it may look as if no one could survive in the pancaked debris of an apartment building but the reinforced concrete construction here in Turkey can fall in ways that creates large gaps. "There are some pretty good void spaces because of the larger structural components of the buildings," he says. "So there's hope for people in these types of buildings here."

Peter Pan still doesn't appear to be finding anything, so the USAID team sets up a Delsar seismic listening device that can detect faint sounds from inside the pile of debris. They probe openings with extendable digital cameras.

Locals gather to watch the Americans at work.

Guney Gunes is at the site because his sister lived in an adjacent building that's now destroyed. He says people are incredibly thankful for the help from the U.S. and other countries. "It gives us hope," he says.

"Nobody wants to lose his hope because if you lose your hope," he stops mid-sentence, maybe out of grief, maybe to ponder the idea further. Then he adds, "Hope is everything."

As the afternoon progresses, the USAID team is still finding nothing. After checking the back side of the rubble pile, Campet asks that Peter Pan "run" the area again.

This time Peter Pan stops in front of an opening in the debris and starts barking energetically. Then the dog barks at a second spot close to the first. Campet says this a strong indication that someone is, or was recently, alive in that spot.

"He himself corroborated what he was alerting us to on two sides," Campet says. "I would say it's a strong signal. Based on that I've asked our base camp to send the rest of a rescue squad. They should be here shortly."

Soon after Peter Pan barked that he'd found something, a team of Turkish miners digging on the opposite side of the debris field announce that they've made contact with a woman and a child trapped at their site. The USAID team brings the Turkish miners some specialized digging tools and sends over an American medical team. Through an interpreter they discuss the details of how best to extract the woman.

The site where a Turkish mining crew attempts to reach a woman and her child trapped inside their collapsed apartment building, almost five days after the earthquake.
/ Jason Beaubien/NPR
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Jason Beaubien/NPR
The site where a Turkish mining crew attempts to reach a woman and her child trapped inside their collapsed apartment building, almost five days after the earthquake.

Leyla Yilmaz who used to live in the building is watching them work. The 38-year-old says she's overjoyed that one of her neighbors is still alive inside the massive pile of debris.

"It's a miracle," she says and thanks God.

As night sets in both search teams set up construction lights to continue working on opposite sides of the debris field.

Close to midnight, the Turks finally manage to get the woman and one of her children out alive.

The USAID team searched extensively where Peter Pan had barked but in the end the American team only found human remains.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.