Wednesday, March 22, 2023


MEMBERS of a specially-trained canine search team from Newcastle are on standby to assist in the Turkish earthquake disaster. Search dog Floss, who is trained to work in collapsed structure environments, and her handler, Raph O’Connor, plus his father-in-law Neil Powell, who founded the Search and Rescue Dog Association (Ireland North), are now waiting to see if they will be deployed. The local charity was officially placed on standby on Monday morning and are prepared to fly out at short notice to assist in the aftermath of the quakes which struck in Turkey, and neighbouring Syria. Southern Turkey and northern Syria were hit with two huge earthquakes on Monday, the first of which came in the early hours of the morning and registered a magnitude of 7.8. A second quake – measuring 7.5 – then struck the Elbistan region of Turkey’s Kahramanmaras province at around 2pm local time. Seismologists have said the quakes are among the largest ever recorded in the country and were felt across nearby Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus and Israel. Thousands of deaths have also been reported across the countries as rescuers race to save people trapped in the rubble of many hundreds of collapsed buildings in both countries. SARDA IN have previously assisted in a number of rescue missions involving collapsed buildings in Northern Ireland and further afield, with Mr Powell having rushed to Turkey in November 1999 in the wake of a near identical disaster, when a catastrophic 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck, causing monumental damage and in excess of 18,000 deaths. Two of Neil’s skilled search dogs at the time, brothers Cracker and Dylan’s lifesaving abilities came to the fore in the aftermath of that disaster. Working in dangerous and exhausting circumstances, Dylan located two people trapped alive in the rubble while Cracker managed to locate a number of deceased, giving families the opportunity to pay their last respects to loved ones. On their return to Northern Ireland, and for their display of outstanding gallantry and devotion to duty while carrying out official duties with their handler, they were each awarded the PDSA Gold Medal. Four years later, Neil and Charco, a sniffer dog who was also trained in collapsed structure searches, helped save the life of a 36-year-old man who was buried in rubble during the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, Pakistan. During this same operation the black Labrador also located a child, who had managed to survive despite being trapped in the debris of the kindergarten they attended. He was also sent to help victims of the massive earthquake in Algeria in 2003. More recently, in October 2022, handlers and dogs from the group were tasked with assisting in locating unaccounted for individuals in the aftermath of the tragedy in Creeslough. Ten people were killed in the County Donegal village after a gas explosion at a service station led to the collapse of the building. Speaking yesterday, Raph and Neil explained that should they be sent overseas they will form part of a larger group consisting of fellow dogs and handlers from Wales, as part of the British International Rescue and Search Dogs organisation. They would then partner up with SERVE ON, the UK’s leading organisation that provides emergency search and rescue in natural disasters worldwide, and other support groups. The SARDA IN team has been prepping kit in the hope of deploying in the wake of the earthquakes which have decimated vast areas, toppling small and large buildings alike. “If we go out we will have to camp, and expect to be out there for five days,” Raph explained. Acknowledging that accessibility is already hindering the rescuers, as they attempt to access areas now cut off, and working in sub-zero temperatures, Raph said he and Neil “will need to be selfsufficient if deployed” and that “now we are just waiting on further instruction.” With time truly being of the essence, Raph explained that the final decision to send the SARDA IN volunteers as part of the international response must be taken by government, including the Home Office. Neil added that the team “are more than ready and willing to assist in whatever way we can” and acknowledged that being sent out sooner would be advantageous. “Floss is a great dog, she knows her stuff and loves to do what she is trained for,” he said. No stranger to overseas deployment, Neil added: “Everyone and anyone involved in this response has one goal, as you can imagine; to get as much emergency assistance flown over to help search for survivors in this terrible disaster. “We are more than willing to provide assistance, after all that’s what we train for. Now, we just await the call.”

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