El Salvador: special teams to the rescue

Search efforts continued yesterday, as well as a massive effort to feed and care for the homeless.

Angel Gutierrez scans the uneven landscape of earthen mounds and wreckage left behind by the landslide the earthquake provoked.

"This is very complicated," he says of his current assignment. He calls the members of his team over to discuss the next step. While they huddle, their faithful partners - body-sniffing dogs - stand at their sides.

Among the international workers flooding into El Salvador after Saturday's earthquake are a number of invaluable contributions like this one: specialized rescue teams.

A number of groups of these seemingly tireless workers - from Spain and Turkey to the United States - jumped on planes at a moment's notice to contribute their expertise to the post-quake rescue efforts. They are part humanitarian workers, part adventurers, and they know no borders.

With more than 600 dead, hundreds missing, more than 2,000 injured, and some 46,000 houses damaged or destroyed - leaving some 20,000 homeless, a massive amount of aid is needed.

Five members of the highly experienced Miami-Dade Urban Search and Rescue Team also arrived on Sunday night as part of the US Agency for International Development's Disaster Assistance Response Team. They have worked "just about any foreign disaster you can think of," from floods in Mozambique to the Colombian earthquake, says Lt. Mark Lamb from Florida.

Members of his team have trained local rescue teams in El Salvador in the past, and now they are helping organize relief efforts here.

"My guys are helping to get local people working in the right direction and making sure people are safe," Lieutenant Lamb says.

"I've been in this line of work since 1988," says Mr. Gutierrez, the leader of the canine unit of the Civil Protection group from Getafe, Spain. "I like dogs, and I like rescue, even though it's dangerous. We work earthquakes, landslides, and mountain rescue." His team, which arrived in Guatemala Sunday night, has previously worked in other disaster areas, like Turkey when it had a major earthquake in August 1999.

Dressed in orange jumpsuits with blue reinforced knee patches and silver helmets that look like something out of "Star Wars," the Getafe group includes a wide variety of dogs, including boxers, schnauzers, and the more traditional German shepherd. On their backs they carry a knapsack of indispensable tools: a bottle of water, and a dog bowl, a first aid kit - for the dog - and the toys with which they reward their dogs for obeying commands.

Most important, each worker has his own dog, painstakingly trained, and with an impressive ability to sniff humans from beneath rubble and dirt.

In the La Colina neighborhood of Santa Tecla, the focal point of the Salvador earthquake rescue efforts, Hugo Revelo stands on a mound of dirt nearby the wreckage of what was his mother's home and where he believes his mother and sister were buried by the landslide. He watches carefully as Getafe team member Susana Izquierda kneels, speaks into the ear of her dog, Bul, then takes off his leash.

Bul breaks away from his master like a rocket. He runs circles around a depression in the wreckage where workers have recently peeled off a layer of dirt with an earthmover. Everyone is silent as the German shepherd, nose to the ground, seeks out a scent. Soon he starts to bark and paw at the packed earth.

That sign is all the workers need. As Bul returns to his master for a reward, another group of Spanish firefighters jumps down into the depression near where the dog reacted and starts shoveling rapidly.

"The way the dog reacted there makes us believe there is someone in there," explains Miguel Gomez of the Getafe team. He adds that he does not believe that person is alive.

At this stage in the post-quake rescues, most have accepted that there's little chance of finding more survivors. Still, they hold out hope. Many remember the dramatic rescue in Turkey of a 4-year-old boy who had spent six days under the debris of the Aug. 17, 1999 earthquake.

So the workers continue to search intensely around the clock. The great distances they traveled to come here are still worth it, even if they don't pull out a survivor.

"Even if we don't find someone alive, our trip here will not be vain. Of course it is always important to rescue a live victim, but it is also important to try," Gutierrez says.

In recent days, most family members have accepted that they will not see their loved ones alive. Still it is important to them, too, that the workers keep at it. Family members, who just days ago hoped to find their loved ones alive, are now hoping to find some form of closure.

"We really appreciate their work," says Mr. Revelo, unable to hold back his tears. "If the workers could just find the bodies, it would help. They won't be able to hug us or say anything to us, but at least we could bury them."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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