When Dean Tills arrived in Türkiye after the devastating earthquake hit February 6, his mission felt tragically familiar.
The civil engineer, one of more than 150 U.S. search and rescue workers recently deployed to the disaster zone, also responded to Türkiye in 1999 when another massive earthquake struck the country.
“I’m sorry that I have to be back in such a terrible situation,” Tills told the Turkish news site Anadolu, adding that he values the opportunity to help others when needed. “We just hope we can rescue as many people as possible.”
Tills and his dog Ivan are members of Virginia’s Fairfax County International Urban Search and Rescue team, which assisted the response to the devastating earthquakes.
The Fairfax team, as well as the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Urban Search and Rescue team, joined a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) that President Biden deployed soon after the earthquake leveled buildings and killed thousands of people in southeastern Türkiye and northern Syria.
The DART and two search and rescue teams brought engineers, medics, hazardous material technicians, search and rescue specialists and a dozen dogs to rescue people from the rubble.
Bryan Wells, a task force leader with the L.A. County rescue team, said rescuers rely on years of training to perform the dangerous work. “You get people who are deeply entombed in concrete,” Wells told the Los Angeles Times. “And it’s a matter of utilizing our skills.”
The teams brought more than 77,000 kilograms of specialized equipment. The dogs’ sense of smell — up to 100,000 times stronger than humans’ — assists searchers, who used sensitive listening devices and specialized cameras that snake through rubble and locate survivors. They used hydraulic equipment to break concrete and advanced medical devices to treat survivors.
More than 50 countries deployed teams to work alongside the Turks after the earthquake, rescuing more than 80,000 people as of February 13, according to Türkiye’s government.
In Syria, U.S.-funded organizations responded immediately to assist victims. The Syria Civil Defence, a long-standing USAID partner organization also known as the White Helmets, has rescued more than 2,900 people from the wreckage in Syria.
The U.S. government also announced $185 million in lifesaving assistance for survivors in Türkiye and Syria. In addition, private citizens across the United States have raised funds and donated supplies to support the response.
The United States has provided more than $15 billion in U.S. humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people since 2011. And on February 19, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged the United States will continue to support the people of Syria and Türkiye as they recover from the devastating earthquakes.
Our structural engineers and heavy rigging specialists work closely with local crane operators to carefully remove large parts of buildings to access lower void spaces.@USAIDSavesLives @ffxfirerescue pic.twitter.com/6h59F9MNvD
— VA-TF1 / USA-1 – Urban Search and Rescue (@VATF1) February 14, 2023
Engineers like Tills also assessed more than 5,500 buildings to let people know they have somewhere safe to sleep.
Joshua Svensson, a civil engineer with the L.A. County search team, says that, with thousands made homeless and facing freezing temperatures, assuring people a building to which they are returning is structurally sound was “a heavy responsibility.”
“We will go to these houses and say, ‘I would sleep here,’ Svensson told the Los Angeles Times. “Offering people that peace of mind is a big deal.”