Czech rescue worker in Algiers

17-06-2003

The earthquake which hit northern Algiers in May of this year killed over 1,000 people and injured over 7,000. The Czech Republic was one of many states which sent a rescue team to the site of the disaster. Pavel Peceny recalls how they arrived in a town close to Bumirdis, near the epicenter of the quake, 28 hours after the tragedy struck.

"We were the first rescue team in town -9 rescue workers, 3 people with trained dogs and a doctor. There was debris everywhere -most of the buildings had collapsed completely, others were torn apart and leaning dangerously. And there was complete chaos - hundreds of people were crawling all over the debris desperately trying to locate lost family and friends. They had almost no equipment and most of them were using their bare hands to dig. The women were standing aside but the male population -from small boys to old men were trying to move the piles of concrete, shouting down cracks and trying to get a response. Many were bloodied, some were bandaged and they wouldn't stop digging. It took a great deal of effort for us to convince them that that it was wiser to let us take over. They seemed to have no previous experience with rescue teams and sniffer dogs but when they saw how quickly the dogs found victims they were suddenly cooperative. All they wanted was not to be excluded from the rescue work so we gave them shovels and pickaxes and let them help where it was possible. It was soon clear that the chances of finding anyone alive were very small but they were determined to retrieve their dead and give them a proper burial. The brother of one dead man whom we reached by crawling though a tunnel of debris insisted that we had to get him out at any cost. By the time we had freed the upper half of his body, we could see the ceiling was about to cave in and we quickly backed out of there. But at the end of the tunnel stood this man's brother barring our way and insisting that we must go back for him.

We explained that he was dead and that we couldn't risk five lives to extricate a dead man. We had to wait until the heavy equipment got there to move all the layers of concrete. By that time the whole family had gathered around and insisted that we get him out and if we had managed to free only half his body we should cut off his legs and bring them half of his body to bury. That's how desperate some of them were. But they were also very grateful and they would bow to us and touch their hearts in a sigh of gratitude when all we had done was dig out the body of their dead child from under the rubble."

17-06-2003