I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet
Photos by Klara Salamon and Gabor Szalanczi
In February 2023, Turkey and Syria underwent a magnitude 7.8 magnitude earthquake, followed approximately nine hours later by a 7.5 earthquake located around 59 miles to the southwest. The first earthquake was the most devastating to hit earthquake-prone Turkey in more than 20 years and was as strong as the one from 1939, the most powerful recorded there.
The Turkish government led the response in coordination with AFAD (Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority) and the Turkish Red Crescent. Following their call for international assistance, governments around the world were quick to respond, deploying rescue teams and offering aid.
One of the people who took part in this operation was Klara Salamon from Hungary, who told us her story:
I learned about the violent earthquake on the daily news while I was at my workplace. I did not expect the trip. I heard that Turkey had asked for immediate international help. At first, Hungary offered its professional USAR (urban search and rescue) team named HUNOR, including firefighters, doctors, and search and rescue dogs. I’m a member of the Rescue Organization of Budapest as a volunteer with my rescue dog. Our team of volunteers was assisted by HUNOR, Caritas Hungarica, the Turkish Embassy and Turkish Airlines, which transported us.
I have three workplaces. Unfortunately, not all of them are able to let me engage in volunteer activities. Because of this, I had to leave one of my workplaces when I got back from the mission.
It was clear to me that I had to go to help, because I own a trained and tested dog. I have an emergency bag, so I can be self-sufficient for five to seven days. I had only 12 hours to think it over, discuss it with my family, and pack up myself and my dog.
I have been working with rescue dogs for 19 years. It started as a hobby, but has turned into a lifestyle. My first dog was a Border Collie called Nixon. He performed well at many competitions and the advanced level of ruins and area-searching exam (IRO RH-TB, RH-FLB). I participated with him in the mission following the Indonesian earthquake in 2009. We worked together in Padano.
Nixon was followed by Tara, a Dutch Shepherd; she was very impulsive. We became world champions in area searching at the World Championship for Dutch Shepherds in 2018. Both of us were able to learn something new at training and operational exercises. I am my own sponsor. Exams and competitions are often organized abroad. It is hard to find appropriate training venues; we must travel hundreds of miles for a good rubble area. Continuous learning and progress are very important.
Sheepdogs and hunting dogs are the most suitable breeds for this purpose. I like working with Border Collies, because they are of medium size (too small and too large sizes are not ideal). They are fast and teachable, self-sufficient, but they can also be controlled. The dog should be motivated. My other huge love is the Dutch Shepherd, a perfect partner in searching. We went to many competitions and stood many times on the podium. Action exercises and exams help to prepare for a possible real situation, but you are never really prepared.
I’m a qualified intensive-care nurse, but I took an official exam in canine first aid and water rescue. I am a volunteer firefighter and also a training manager. I received training in alpine techniques: You need to orient yourself, and have GPS and radio skills.
This was my second mission. The first time I was in Sumatra in October 2009. What I brought with me were a dog crate, dog food for five days, a sleeping bag, protective equipment like boots, gloves and helmet, and a 33-pound backpack that I had to carry alone.
Constant attention is important in a real situation; you can’t feel safe. Aftershocks put an extra strain on dogs and humans. These are not dog-friendly training venues because of the dangerous materials, smoke and smells, corpses and machine noises.
I was shocked by the sight and the feeling of the aftershocks. Imagine, you are standing on a pile of rubble, and there are 300 people somewhere below your feet. Eighty percent of the city was ruined. Our first campsite was in Kahramanmaras, then we were ordered to relocate to Hatay. We found many dead people. Had we arrived a day earlier, maybe we could have saved more lives. At a location, the dogs found two victims, but they were only able to rescue one live person. After four to five days, we had no chance of finding anyone alive. They often started demolishing houses without searching.
Teams from Turkey, Israel, Sweden and Germany worked with us. Yossi from Israel was in charge of technique and logistics.
After searching, when the dogs leave the ruins, we have to check their paws to ensure that there are no cuts and injuries. It’s important to find a safe place during aftershocks.
For me it was physically difficult to stay awake and work continuously; we had little sleep, but we wanted to help more than rest. It was almost constantly cold. There and then you don’t even think about the horrors. I also encounter death during my day job, and I’m fine with it. It is a regular sight in an intensive-care unit. I can handle it. We had no time for that in Turkey; you just put it in another drawer in your brain. I studied martial arts (karate, iaido) for more than 10 years; my masters gave me a lot of techniques that help maintain my mental health.
My husband can also handle a rescue dog, although he doesn’t have a dog currently. He supports me in everything. I have a son, 10-year-old David. He is an excellent student who is trying to be independent. I was away for six days; sometimes we had an internet connection, so we could communicate. Everything went well at home.
I returned from this mission proud of the fact that I could be part of the delegation that tried to help the poor people who had suffered from this terrible earthquake.