Bringing hope to people in desperate need

On February 6, 2023, 04:17 local time, Turkey was rocked by two of the largest and most destructive earthquakes ever to strike the country.

They lasted just moments but changed the lives of millions of people forever.

The call went out for help and the world responded. Among those who heard the call was Luke Schofield, a Bristow pilot who travelled to Antakya to support UN operations as a volunteer with the REACT Disaster Response Charity.

This is his account of events.

I first volunteered with the disaster response charity REACT in 2019 and as soon as I heard the news of the tragic events unfolding in Türkiye I knew they would be responding.

Sure enough, on 14 February I got the call to lead one of four Response Teams being prepped to support UN operations in the country.

With the support and blessing of the Bristow management I grabbed my duffle bag - already packed with core kit such as uniform, med kit, PPE, sleep system - and got moving for REACT HQ.

Information from teams on the ground started to arrive. Important stuff that can only come direct from the scene like the environment, weather, temperatures, key locations, camp facilities. At the same time I started to receive pre-deployment requirements, things like medical clearance, vaccinations in date and emergency contacts.

When I arrived at REACT HQ in Salisbury, England, the place was an absolute hive of activity. Volunteers mobilised for logistics and transport had already erected tents outside on the front lawn, one for each team. Piles of kit, ration packs, food, PPE and other equipment were laid out inside.

I met the other responders as they arrived and we grabbed a slice of the usual ‘disaster pizza’ before our Director of International Operations gave us our initial brief. We were given our travel information, the area of operation and our mandate; to support the UN and local authorities with situational awareness in Hatay province, the location of two of the most affected cities, Antakya and Samandag, and to support any UN cluster activity with 'last mile' logistics.

We ran through the risks. The area was experiencing up to 30 aftershocks a day, numerous buildings were dangerously unstable, the water supply couldn’t be guaranteed safe and there was a possible risk of looting. It was also likely we'd find ourselves operating close to, and possibly across, the Syrian border.

There was no time to waste. The airport runway in Antakya, badly damaged in the quakes, was due to reopen to humanitarian flights and we were confirmed as leaving that night.

The kit load was substantial, with the aim of keeping us as self-sufficient as possible throughout our deployment. Tents, water purification, dried rations for two weeks, satellite comms, helmets and med kits and lots and lots of morale snacks! Each person carried a day sack, a 20kg duffle bag plus a separate duffle for all the team kit.

Two flights and one layover later we were beginning our descent into Antakya and I got my first glimpse of the country. From the skies things seemed oddly peaceful –the damage was difficult to spot from the air - but on the ground it was a very different story.

Driving into town and the enormity of the situation became all-too-clear. Broken roads, pancaked buildings and piles of rubble were strewn around. What were once busy homes and businesses were now scenes of tragedy and devastation.

We approached our base of operations – Hatay Stadium - over a rather ropey looking bridge (it later collapsed) and spent our first night learning the camp routine and facilities, setting up our tents and integrating into camp life.

The first day of deployment, myself and some of the other Team Leaders were taken out to get a feeling for the scale of the damage. It was difficult to comprehend. Around 80 percent of the city was destroyed or severely unstable. Rubble lay everywhere. Some buildings were completely unrecognisable, others partially collapsed or broken in half, some sunken into the ground due to liquefaction. Essential services were impacted or damaged and temporary facilities including field hospitals had been established.

The devastation was like nothing even the most seasoned responder had seen. People were living in tents and tarpaulin shelters next to their unstable homes to prevent looting and have access to their belongings. Everyone was in mourning. It was a hugely distressing situation.

That evening I got my first taste – albeit a small one - of what had happened just a few days before.

Walking back to our camp we heard a low rumble, like thunder. The tarmac under our feet began to vibrate, the thunder became a roar and the steel structure of the stadium started to visibly shake.

Adrenaline surging, we moved away from the edge of the stadium towards the fence, everyone watching for any collapsing building. The earthquake continued to build. The stadium’s corrugated surfaces came loose and pieces started falling off, lampposts and signs were swaying violently back and forth.

The tarmac started to ripple like a wave and large cracks opened up. At this point attempting to get clear of the stadium became like trying to run on a bouncy castle. It was dark and difficult to see. Everything was moving. People were falling and tripping over the broken ground. Flashes of blue lit up the open ground as power lines collapsed, plunging the area into darkness.

It was over in about 60 seconds, then the power partially restored. As the lighting came back the shouting started. Voices were quickly drowned out by sirens as the emergency services flooded out of the camp, heading for the city where people were, once again, facing desperate situations.

Most of the injuries in camp were thankfully minor but the experience served as a stark reminder of the dangers of operating in an earthquake zone. It also caused significant further damage in the city and had a huge psychological effect on the population, many of whom were utterly terrified of further earthquakes.

Our primary activity each day was assessing needs and damage for the UN. We were tasked to visit each of the 15 districts within Hatay province, from the coastal city of Samandag to the mountain villages and towns in Erzin district to the north.

We would venture out daily, identifying where camps were located, speaking to the residents, and determining their immediate and ongoing needs for shelter, food, medical, WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene). The focus was on urgent needs and the most vulnerable and where possible we would make interventions immediately by providing or connecting those most in need with immediate aid or sourcing it and delivering it ourselves.

Due to the danger of travelling at night with so many unstable buildings we would return to camp before nightfall and as a team leader I would attend the evening meeting with UNDAC (UN Disaster Assessment & Coordination) to determine taskings for the next day.

Work included a major two-day effort to rebuild an aid warehouse, full of vital supplies, which had been damaged during aftershocks.

Getting the warehouse operational again and freeing the aid trapped inside was a great example of the critical taskings that were going on all across the region. We had to forge working relationships with other groups and agencies to bring them together as one team, pooling the right skills, capabilities and equipment to tackle the problem.

Seeing the lorries roll out of the warehouse a couple of days later, full of aid to be distributed to people nearby, was a great moment.

A saying that we used a lot was “each person’s experience of disaster is unique”. And it was very true. In Antakya we came across people who had lost their home, business, family and ultimately everything. Some were destroyed by this, others stoic and others determined and passionate, supporting every initiative to help others and repurpose themselves and rebuild.

We settled into a daily rhythm: leave the camp during the day, distribute aid, build tents, assess needs and coordinate further assistance. On one occasion we visited the Syrian border where the devastation was anticipated to be huge but access was difficult and the true scale of the disaster there will never be truly known due to the challenges of international aid reaching them.

I spent two weeks in Turkey with REACT and, while I know that as an individual, I only scratched the surface, I also know that, collectively, charities and groups like the one I was part of made a huge difference. The instinctive desire to help, to bring a positive change to people who are in desperate need, is what spurred the entire response. Yes there are political implications but ahead of them the response on the ground was entirely humanitarian.

The country has a lot of work to do and will take many years to recover. There are people to mourn and 2.1 million still displaced with their cities to rebuild, but the resolve of everyone I met was remarkable and their determination, and that of everyone who responded to the cry for help, was truly humbling.

It was an experience I will never forget.

REACT is a humanitarian rapid response charity. Their volunteer Response Teams rapidly deploy to humanitarian emergencies in the UK and internationally — helping to save lives and alleviate suffering. They specialise in high tempo, dynamic, complex crises; providing assistance for the hardest to reach, most vulnerable communities