French rescuers cling on to hope as they scour the ruins of Antakya

The National followed the French team and their dogs on their search through the quake-ravaged historic city

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Loic Bargibant and his team of French rescuers began searching for survivors amid the rubble of collapsed buildings in the historic Turkish city of Antakya on Thursday morning. But after more than two days they had found none.

Mr Bargibant, 47, head of an association of French rescuers called Secouriste Francais Croix Blanche, and a veteran of disaster responses around the world, refused to give up hope.

“In Haiti, people were even found after 28 days," he told The National.

Antakya, in Hatay province, is one of the places hardest hit by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck south-east Turkey early on Monday. By Saturday, the death toll in Turkey and neighbouring areas of northern Syria had passed 24,000.

“The scale of devastation is worse than what I saw in 1999," Mr Bargibant said as he examined a crumpled home.

Monday's earthquake is considered the worst disaster to hit Turkey since the 1999 tremor that killed more than 17,000 in the country.

Mr Loic's team of 15 rescuers and two dogs are only a small part of the enormous assistance effort mobilised by countries across the world. According to Turkey's Foreign Ministery, 99 countries have offered some form of help, with 68 sending a total of 8,236 search and rescue personnel.

The UN said on Wednesday that the chances of finding people alive dropped after 60 hours, but Mr Bargibant said people trapped in the rubble could generally survive for up to 10 days.

French rescuers search for survivors in Antakya on February 10, four days after the deadly earthquake in Turkey. Matt Kynaston / The National

“The people who were the most accessible have already been pulled out," he said. "Those who remain need more advanced means, as moving the rubble can aggravate the situation."

On Friday afternoon, as they climbed over rubble and made their way through narrow debris-filled alleys, one of the team raised an alarm.

“Smoking is forbidden, don’t light anything," he shouted, pointing to gas bottles lying nearby as a distinctive smell of rotten eggs filled the air.

“There is a risk of gas leaking," Mr Bargibant explained.

They resumed their search after using a detector to check that the level of gas was safe.

“We got information that a couple and their three kids used to live in this building and that they were missing," said Marin Chesnoy, one of the rescuers, indicating a mound of rubble.

The rescuers have been looking for survivors since Thursday morning. Matt Kynaston / The National

“Is there anyone here?” a translator shouted repeatedly in Turkish.

“First, we are calling by voice to see if there is a reaction," Mr Chesnoy explained.

“In case we hear something, we then use specialised gear to detect sounds. If there are positive signals, we send the dog who can smell human presence, then a camera to get a good view of the survivor. The final phase is to move the rubble and try to secure a safe access to extract the person."

Their search dog Lasko, a 7-year-old German Shepherd with two years of training, strained at his leash and panted with excitement.

“It's like a game, they are playing hide and seek, people are hidden and they have to find them, and the reward is when the person is pulled out," said Mr Bargibant.

Lasko, a trained rescue dog, goes into action after signs of life are detected. Matt Kynaston / The National

The team suddenly pleaded for silence as they heard some sounds coming from the rubble. Lasko was unleashed, but did not find any sign of life under the flattened house.

On Saturday, they reported another possible find. "We are currently on a site where we have positive feedback on our listening devices, but we need to drill several slabs," Mr Bargibant said.

Even after five days, relatives of the missing in Antakya were not giving up hope that survivors could still be found.

Gulsen Kurt, 34, has slept for several days in front of a site being cleared of rubble where her husband's family lived. She came all the way from Istanbul, she said.

"Yesterday I could hear their voices, I still have hope," she said.

Updated: February 11, 2023, 10:52 PM