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Search and rescue teams from all over the world are descending on Turkey


Search and rescue workers from all over the world are pouring into Turkey to help victims of Monday's 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Turkey's state news media says more than 65 countries have offered assistance so far. But access to neighboring Syria, which was also hit hard, is much more difficult. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The main priority after a major earthquake is search and rescue, finding anyone who may still be alive under the rubble. Stephen Allen leads the U.S. government's disaster response team. Speaking from Ankara, he says Turkey has a robust search and rescue system.

STEPHEN ALLEN: They really worked on it over the last 20 years. But the size and scale of this one is beyond what they could handle.

NORTHAM: So Turkey appealed to the international community for help. Dozens of countries are rushing to get search and rescue teams into Turkey from neighboring Greece and other EU countries. Israel, even the Taliban have offered to help, as has Russia and China. Ukraine has people on standby. The U.S. deployed two teams on Tuesday afternoon, says Allen.

ALLEN: Each one is about 80 people. They have teams of rescue dogs. There's 12 dogs total. And they're coming with 170,000 pounds of specialized tools and equipment. That includes things like hydraulic concrete-breaking equipment, saws, torches, drills, as well as some advanced medical capability.

NORTHAM: It's all being hauled over in two military aircraft. But it's no easy task coordinating the multitude of international rescuers and their equipment heading into Turkey. Jon Viglundsson (ph) is with the Icelandic Search and Rescue in Reykjavik. He says coordination lies with a group called INSARAG, the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group.

JON VIGLUNDSSON: It's U.N.-based. Their main function is to come into disaster areas like this and provide control and coordination between international rescue units coming in and locals.

NORTHAM: Viglundsson says he believes the disaster area will be divided up into smaller sections that will have their own command centers. This is where the 11 members of the Icelandic Search and Rescue team will be working.

VIGLUNDSSON: That's where our people are specialized in, coordination and control. So we believe that in this instance, the need for that would be the most.

NORTHAM: Sir Stephen O'Brien, a former U.N. under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, says it's surprising which countries excel at search and rescue, places like Afghanistan and Iran, because of the number of earthquakes they've had.

STEPHEN O'BRIEN: The Japanese are brilliant at it as well. They tend to be the world's leaders on tsunamis.

NORTHAM: O'Brien says conditions on the ground in Turkey are challenging, so too are geopolitics. It's unclear if international search and rescue teams will be able to access earthquake victims in parts of Syria, an area complicated by an ongoing civil war.

O'BRIEN: And you can see there are reports where people are nervous to go in because you don't want your emergency workers to be put at risk either. You've got to protect them. They're a major resource.

NORTHAM: Viglundsson says, no matter where they're from, every search and rescue worker comes up against a hard truth in a disaster like this.

VIGLUNDSSON: There is always hope at the beginning. And hope is the last thing to die. But the possibilities of finding people alive will dwindle with every hour.

NORTHAM: A winter storm has now settled on the region.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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