I remember the boy's faint pulse: SCDF officers recount rescues of Türkiye-Syria earthquake victims
Dozens of SCDF officers from the Operation Lionheart contingent were deployed to Türkiye last month to help with rescue efforts after a devastating earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people.
SINGAPORE: Temperatures had dropped to about 2 degrees Celsius when Staff Sergeant Muhammad Tamimi Mohamad Mamsi and a team of fellow Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers got to the scene of a collapsed building in Türkiye on Feb 8.
The situation was dire. A 7.8-magnitude earthquake had rocked the country as well as Syria just days earlier, claiming thousands of lives.
For the SCDF officers, all they were focused on was working with other teams to rescue victims.
When a search canine from a Spanish rescue team picked up the scent of someone under the rubble of a three-storey building, SCDF used a fibre-optic scope to confirm that was the case.
The teams then tried to breach the rubble twice but found no one. On their third try, Staff Sergeant Tamimi managed to enter what he described as a “void”.
As he navigated the wreckage, he reached out beneath a carpet entwined with a mattress and felt what he thought was someone’s spine. Upon prying open the mattress, he finally discovered a 12-year-old boy lying on his side.
“There was an adrenaline rush when I cut open the mattress (and saw) his head,” he told reporters on Friday (Mar 3).
“To sense the faint pulse coming from the boy, I still remember that.”
Staff Sergeant Tamimi, 31, was among an advance team of 20 SCDF officers who were deployed to Türkiye last month to help with rescue efforts. A second team of 48 SCDF officers followed soon after.
Among them were 37 officers from the elite Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (DART), paramedic specialists, doctors and four canines from the SCDF’s K-9 unit.
Several officers, including those involved in rescuing the boy as well as another man the following day, recounted their experiences to reporters on Friday at the Home Team Tactical Centre.
The team is from a contingent known as Operation Lionheart, which is on standby round-the-clock. It was formed in 1990 and has since been deployed on 19 search and rescue or humanitarian relief assistance missions.
It was Staff Sergeant Tamimi’s first overseas deployment. He had joined DART as a rescue specialist about a year ago after seven years in the SCDF.
The advance team left Singapore in the wee hours of Feb 7 and arrived in Istanbul the following day. By the time they got to Kahramanmaraş province, which was almost destroyed by the earthquake, there was almost no daylight left.
The SCDF officers then joined a local team and another from Spain to begin search and rescue operations.
When they got to the collapsed building, they saw locals crying for help, said DART deputy rescue commander Abdul Rashid Abdul Karim. Two dead bodies had already been pulled from the rubble the day before.
Once the teams confirmed someone was alive under the rubble, they began drilling breach spots. This posed a challenge as debris could fall on casualties, Lieutenant Rashid added.
On their third attempt, he called for Staff Sergeant Tamimi to “crawl into the void” and look for signs of life.
Faced with the danger of injuring himself on exposed rebars, Staff Sergeant Tamimi proceeded cautiously and gave himself room to move around by removing debris. He eventually located the boy and called out to ascertain if he was alive.
Although the boy did not respond initially, Staff Sergeant Tamimi detected a faint pulse at his neck.
The officer then turned away to see how he could widen the exit to drag the boy out, but when he checked on the boy again, his eyes were open and fixed on Staff Sergeant Tamimi.
Staff Sergeant Tamimi recounted: “He was saying something in Turkish and I couldn't understand. I gave him assurance with my hand signals, showing him the exit out of the void ... I requested a bottle of water for the boy to take a sip before we commenced with the rescue.
"Then, all of a sudden, the next moment, the boy just crawled out of the void by himself."
Lieutenant Rashid said he was “quite surprised” to see the boy “go out so fast” and had to hold him down to protect his head and pull him out.
The three-hour effort concluded with the boy being taken to an interim medical centre.
The next day, the advance team helped to rescue a man from a two-storey building that had partially collapsed in Dulkadiroglu, also in Kahramanmaraş province.
Five DART personnel and a paramedic worked with members of the local emergency management agency to locate the victim.
Warrant Officer 1 Muhammad Faris Mohammad, also a DART rescue specialist, entered the building through the back of the building where faint calls for help had been heard.
Warrant Officer 1 Fendilato Mohamad Tahir then used a fibre-optic scope to confirm that the man was trapped behind a large concrete slab. The man turned his head and the camera caught his eyes.
He was rescued within half an hour.
Warrant Officer 1 Faris said that while he was mentally prepared for the rescue work, the temperatures – which plunged to below freezing at times – were quite challenging.
'IT CAN BE VERY SAD TO SEE THEM'
SCDF ended up rescuing these two victims and retrieving another four bodies within 10 days before returning to Singapore to a hero’s welcome on Feb 18.
While the officers got to talk to their loved ones in Türkiye, Staff Sergeant Tamimi said they only learnt of his successful rescue when they were back in Singapore and spoke to Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam at the airport.
“My dad and relatives were worried at first (when I was deployed) but they were very supportive,” Staff Sergeant Tamimi added.
He also contracted a high fever on the seventh day of the trip but fortunately recovered almost immediately.
Warrant Officer 1 Fendilato, a single father of four boys and a 15-year DART veteran, said his children were “very excited”.
“I told my parents … They’re used to it already,” he added. The 44-year-old was deployed for rescue efforts overseas in 2011 and 2015.
When asked what the most memorable moment was for them, Lieutenant Rashid said he was thankful for the Turkish people’s hospitality.
“They tried to make our lives easier over there,” he added. “They tried to make us feel comfortable, even though we know they are suffering, they helped us with food. The advance team, we got lodging from them – they spared us a room to rest.”
Lieutenant Rashid also recounted seeing “grown men crying by the roadside while looking at the rubble”.
He said: “If it was me, I would be very hopeful that my relatives would be the ones found next.
“So it can be very sad to see them, tears in their eyes … I (have) pity for them,” he added, choking up.
The Türkiye-Syria quake has killed more than 50,000 people and is among the worst in the last century.
All the SCDF officers stressed that it was a collective effort with other rescue teams, with Warrant Officer 1 Fendilato saying it was about helping the Turkish people.
Contingent leader Colonel Chew Keng Tok said: “We have past rescue experiences that probably go up to 12 hours, 14 hours just to reach one ... I think to us, the training has equipped us well enough to follow the processes.
“Whatever we have practised has been put to good use.”