Urban search and rescue team from Burnaby, B.C., deploys to quake zone in Turkey

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VANCOUVER — A team of urban search and rescue specialists from British Columbia has deployed to Turkey’s earthquake zone after independently offering to help with what one Turkish official described as a race against time to find survivors in frigid cold.

Taylan Tokmak, Turkey’s consul general in Vancouver, says members of the Burnaby Urban Search and Rescue Team have arrived in the Adiyaman area, and he expected they would start work in the early hours of Thursday local time.

Tokmak says he’s been in regular communication with the team made up mostly of firefighters from Burnaby, and last he heard they were in a co-ordination meeting with other searchers, many of whom are from different countries.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake, which razed thousands of buildings in Turkey and Syria on Monday, has killed thousands and wounded many others.

Tokmak says the Burnaby team reached out Monday and the consulate sprang into action, helping to arrange travel and accreditation for each member through Turkey’s disaster management authority.

By Tuesday evening, he says the team was on its way, bringing rescue equipment, tents and other supplies that allow the members to be self-sufficient.

“Turkish Canadians living in B.C., they’re telling me that they feel really proud that so far, the only search and rescue team from Canada is from Burnaby,” Tokmak says.

The current plan is for the team to stay in Turkey for about a week, he says.

The Canadian government announced Wednesday it had deployed a disaster assessment team to Turkey, consisting of military and Global Affairs officials.

Tokmak says he believed the federal assessment team was going to help with the reconstruction phase, and Turkey appreciates any help it can get.

The consul general says search and rescue efforts right now are “a race against time” to find people who may be alive and buried under rubble in cold winter weather.

Turkey has experienced major earthquakes in the past, and even after seven days, he says it’s possible to reach survivors, but the chance grows slimmer each day.

From the images he’s seen, the affected areas look like a war zone, Tokmak says. 

“It looks like an atomic bomb has exploded there. So, the destruction of a yearlong war elsewhere happening overnight, in my country.”

The quake rocked parts of Turkey with high population densities, including significant numbers of refugees from Syria, Tokmak adds.

He says the Turkish government has given the Vancouver consulate the authority to use Turkish Airlines flights free of charge in order to send donations. 

The Turkish community in Metro Vancouver and beyond has been organizing donations at a Vancouver warehouse, sending more than two tonnes of supplies on Tuesday, with a similar load set to depart for Istanbul on Thursday, Tokmak says.

“This will be ongoing as long as we need,” he says of the shipments.

Tokmak says he was in touch on Wednesday with International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan, who told him the Canadian government is looking to connect with Turkish organizations across the country to discuss potential co-ordination.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2023.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press

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