Editor’s Note: The following piece was submitted by SOFREP reader and 5th Special Forces Group veteran Paul Klopfer who was part of a recovery team at the disaster site working with Aerial Recovery. We thank him for his contribution. 

Humanity Under the Rubble.

The February 6, 2023, earthquakes, centered in Kahramanmaraş and Gaziantep, Turkey, unearthed both ungodly destruction and absolute humanity, each in their purest form.
The scene in Kahramanmaraş was and is utterly terrible. Men, women, and children move handful after handful of dirt and debris, to pull loved ones from the collapsed structures. It is a collective movement of mountains: a quietly synchronized and sober effort. The unspoken despair is interrupted periodically by calls for complete silence of man and machines as all listen for any sign of life.

Increasingly rarely, a collective exclamation of hope rings out as the living are pulled from their tombs of concrete, steel, and heirlooms. The destructive fault has been answered by a communal and selfless human response; both local and international teams have united efforts against time and gravity. Noticeably absent in these moments is the presence of Afet ve Acil Durum Yönetimi Başkanlığı (AFAD), a governmental disaster management agency operating under the Turkish Ministry of Interior.

Although these initials are printed on tens of thousands of tents throughout the internally displaced persons camps, the consensus among the civilian response is that AFAD representation was insufficient in the collective recovery effort.

Kahramanmaraş after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Turkey. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

A man from Kahramanmaraş stated, “Before the government arrived, four days after the earthquakes, it was just regular people pulling their neighbors out of the rubble, mostly the dead.”
It would be unfair to present only this public consensus, in light of the trauma of this disaster; much of the blame is a collective coping mechanism. Many AFAD personnel are working tirelessly in their local communities and regional efforts have established Crisis Response Centers(CRCs) near the areas of greatest impact, providing medical, logistic, and coordination capabilities.

The public sentiment is beginning to reflect these worthwhile objectives as the CRCs begin to manage the Aid and Housing of the affected regions. This, however, has little bearing on the ongoing Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts: FADA’s irreproachable delay is attributed to the centralization of power under the current Turkish government, as even emergency aid and SAR are treated as political chess pieces.

The bureaucratic fault also delayed the entrance of international Search and Rescue teams to the areas of greatest need. Put simply, the scale of the disaster overwhelmed their capacity to process the required documentation. These organizations offered enhanced search techniques: a combination of search dogs, thermal, radar, and sonar systems, along with the training and experience of these crews. Desperate to help, these international crews rented cars, hopped on cargo trucks, and bartered for helicopter rides from the Turkish Military, in order to make their way, themselves, to the impact areas, as far south as Antakya.

The destruction in Antakya, the ancient city of Antioch, is among the worst. Although further from the epicenter of the earthquakes, continual aftershocks have had an outsized effect on the extremely low-quality tenement buildings in the city. Among the poorest refugee populations live in these low-grade, high-density constructions. Twice victimized: by the ongoing Civil War in Syria and by the indifference of nature. One of the buildings in Antakya had both a canine and radar hit, indicating the possibility of someone alive underneath. There was a small coalition of the willing working at this site for four days: the French Heavy SAR team, Aerial Recovery Group (a nonprofit disaster response organization), the Gideon Rescue Dog Team, a few experienced German volunteers, and a Turkish expatriate from Texas, operating as a translator.

The first few floors of this building had collapsed, leaving the top 5 floors standing haphazardly on top of the rubble below. This type of scene was not uncommon in Hatay; many of the buildings had been constructed as expediently as possible, using cinder block and concrete facing where the concrete should have been poured in place and reinforced. The international team had lived at the site for these 4 days, moving rubble, coordinating with local demolition and construction crews, and helping to engage with and comfort the family of the trapped. They had supported the structure above with excavators and were scanning and digging down from the lowest intact floor. A group of local miners wanted to start tunneling beneath the foundations and find survivors that way, literally working in opposite directions. Unresolved, these opposing efforts could precipitate further loss of life, either rescuers or initial survivors who would be killed by a second collapse.

Sky News footage of some of the worst earthquakes of the century. Video courtesy of YouTube and Sky News.

Eventually, some local leaders were able to mediate the dispute. A Turkish Military commander broke the tension by returning the group’s attention to the shared mission, the preservation of life. In this spirit, his soldiers brought their thermal reconnaissance gear, searching the rubble for heat signatures, in order to triangulate a route for the miners and SAR teams to intersect. This became the pattern of the collective search, Technical and Canine specialty teams would find a sign of life, other teams would cross reference, ideally Canine, Sonar, Radar, and Thermal. Following this, local and International search teams would dig through and crawl into the rubble piles to verify a safe manner for the excavation and demolition teams to remove tons of rock and twisted steel.

The resolve of the Turkish people and the international crews cannot be overstated. Translators, paramedics, and aid workers traveled in from all over the world, met by an army of laborers, Journeymen and grieving families. The same determination seems to be characteristic of the local and international search teams. It was not until the 4th day, as the Turkish Texan broke down in tears, that the teams learned that he had lost his mother and father in the earthquakes. In addition, he and his wife had returned to town for her family reunion, and all their relatives, including her parents, were killed instantly. His energy and effort placed the living stranger over the dead relative.

This is a fundamentally human moment, to respond to the irrationality of unscaled death, with an irrational desperation for life. In defiance of fate, however, survivors continue to be found in the rubble, as recently as this afternoon. The immovable reality of death is pressed and pulled on all sides by an unstoppable and irrational force of hope. Most see God’s hand in this event horizon, and even those who don’t are transfigured by these moments of glory. Whether divine intervention or an ancient collective wisdom, in these saved lives and, therefore the Turkish Texan’s words, we perceive truth: “If I could save one life, it would make my family’s death make sense.”

-To learn more about Aerial Recovery’s mission to “save lives, eliminate confusion, maximize support, and accelerate recovery,” visit: https://aerialrecovery.org/

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My role in the disaster zone was primarily as a member of the Aerial Recovery SAR team. The information and perspective of this article is a byproduct of the good work that this team did.


Paul Klopfer is an alumnus of 5th SFG (A), employing the tenets of this education to Search and Rescue, Firearms instruction, and now, writing.

He sent this picture, saying it was the least “douchey” he could find.

De Oppresso Liber