Humongous orange cranes rambled across the hills of debris. Surrounding the site were open-mouthed men and women gazing at the work being done. They were all residents of the neighbourhood, some of them waiting for their own relatives to be brought back from their dusty graves.
It had been four days since the massive explosion at a vet pharmaceutical factory, Orient Labs, but even then people were are buried underneath. The four-storey building collapsed as a gas cylinder suddenly exploded, last week. One of the injured workers, who was hospitalised after rescued from under the rocks and boulders, said that the owner of the factory had told them to leave the gas running after work, so that the cylinders could fill up during the weekend. However, before the gas could be turned off, the cylinder reached full capacity and exploded from the second floor.
All at once, confusion spread through the neighbourhood, when sleeping residents were shaken up to a bomb-blast-like sound and rushed outside palpitating with fear. All emergency services were alerted and rescue work was underway. Victims, who were slowly being brought out, were shifted to the Jinnah Hospital Lahore. Town Municipal trucks arrived to carry the loads of debris from the site. Police cordoned off the site (although in futility) and the morning sun slowly rose to see unprecedented chaos in the area.
Through the confusion, rescue workers arrived promptly and handled the situation expertly.
Workers of several welfare organisations and even political parties were present at the situation, but Rescue 1122’s prompt and anchored response was irreplaceable.
The Urban Search Rescue Emergency Service’s department of Dirt Rescue (DR team) was on the spot from the first morning and continued working through the week, camping on-site.
Some workers were replaced by shifts, but initially, many had not returned home for more than three days. Farooq Ahmed, who is the media officer of the Rescue 1122 Emergency Service, was one of those. Sporting a rescue helmet, thick leather gloves, and his neon-orange uniform jacket, Farooq had been on site since day one of the incident, but still his energy levels were high. Obviously, he said, the scene requires high energy levels. He cannot just dose off ‘at work’.
Training versus ‘presence’
There is a lot more than high energy levels that keep the rescue workers going. First off, they are the only trained workers available for accidents, whether natural or artificial. As Farooq pointed out, they have been trained to be different from other emergency services.
“Training and presence are two different issues,” he said, squinting in the strong sun light. “We are not only on site we also have basic knowledge in coping with the situation.” For instance, many of the victims trapped underground many have incurred serious injuries. Many have already come out with broken bones, and to transfer them to ambulances, rescue workers must have first-aid knowledge of how to free them, lift them, and then carry them to the vehicle. A lay person would lift them without any care and the patient could not only displace a bone, he or she could easily also rupture nerve.”
At the site, the crane lifts some dirt and revolves around to release it in the truck, as if a colossal hand is opening up its fist. Rescue workers have spent entire nights digging for and dragging the area with special equipment in order to clear trapped people as a first priority. They are using cutters, hydraulic cutters, and AK-12s, which have the ability to cut through concrete and steel.
“It doesn’t do a lot of cutting,” said Farooq. “But it does cut out a substantial amount of concrete and is usually used for us to get through.” He clarifies that much of the media have reported that they have been digging through his hands but this was not true. His hands are gloved, not open, and in any case, digging with hands is not right.
One of the men waiting for his relatives couldn’t stand to see much more. He said he has been visiting the site off and on for two days, waiting for his missing relative to come forward, but the rescue workers had been delaying the process. He shouted and yelled, “Can’t you speed up the whole process? I have my niece in there!” A huge throng of people gathered around him, hungry for any kind of ‘gossip’. Muhammad Rafiq, who is the in charge for New Town Society, comprising about 212 houses, stepped forward and tried to silence the man, but it soon turned into a loud verbal argument. Even Farooq was captured into the controversy, but he refused to answer trivialities and in an artful movement, they bring a truck right behind the mob, and tell them to move. The sheer size of a huge vehicle in such a narrow lane immediately disperses the mob, and Farooq manages a triumphant smile. “See the speed with which they stopped this argument? Rescue workers have been trained to handle situations like these too,” he grins. “We know there will be people like him who are stressed and worried and are prone to create noise. We don’t take him personally.”
“These workers are a godsend,” said Amanat, one of the residents. He was staying at fringe but helping tired workers by sending tea, biscuits and water in their one tent camp which had been propped up in an empty plot. “We have been watching them work, and it is amazing how someone can do this in such a way. This work is very difficult and it requires a lot of skill and know-how. The best part is they are so decent and polite to the people while working.”
Rafique, the society in-charge, also agreed.
“If it wasn’t for the rescue workers and the way they brought out severely injured people, I think that more people would have died than now. These workers have genuinely rescued and saved victims’ lives,” he said. “Speeding up wont help, it will only cause greater issues.”
Indeed speeding up would only cause the people to be subject to rough movements. Farooq said, if they dig any deeper all at once, the ground could vibrate causing bigger portions of debris to fall on the trapped victims, while scooping up more earth than is appropriate at one time might just, very crudely put, ‘slice a person in half’.
Meanwhile Dr Rizwan Ahmed, who was sitting inside the camping tent spoke about the background of the organisation. His own motivation came from staying in Italy and doing social work there.
“I saw how the Italians worked for their people, and I was very inspired by their rescue teams,” said the veteran doctor, who is also Emergency Officer Operations. “Rescue may have been launched about four years ago, but it has been thought of 15 years ago by those involved in it.”
He described the importance of training which even ambulance drivers receive, something not given priority to in Pakistan. “In our organisation, everyone from the top man to a sweeper is trained. This is without exaggeration.”
Handling victims and experiences
“Handling the victim as a first responder is always most important,” said Dr Rizwan. “We get patients with spinal injuries, to those who are simply shaken because of a traumatic experience. We have to take care of them. But it is not easy.”
Though Dr Rizwan has been a doctor for a long time now, he said that he himself has been shaken by many experiences.
“This building collapse was something which has not really surprised us, because we have been to worse sites. But my worst experience has been on bomb blast sites.”
While on-site difficulties with the building collapse involve collection of mobs which have to be dispersed as they interfere with the work done, the issue is nothing when compared to a bomb-attack site.
“If I speak honestly, I have felt repulsed, afraid, and extremely depressed after seeing victims of bomb blast,” he disclosed. “This may be a terrible accident, but it is still just that: an accident. Man made disasters are so heart rending…when I think that someone actually wanted to kill innocent people like this, it’s terrible to know.”
He talked about the blast at Manawan Academy and Data Darbar.
“I saw this man whose skin, and flesh had all been ripped off by the bomb blast and I could see his teeth. In that state, he was losing his heart beat. I tried my best to revive him, and talk to him, telling him that he was looking good, and motivating him…but it was just so difficult to tell him all that when inside I was feeling terrible about it myself.”
Often people also take advantage of the situation, especially when monetary compensation has to be given. Those with missing family members literally bring along pieces of bones of flesh and ask for money saying those belonged to their family members.
“I was at Data Darbar, and we had to go inside, to pick up roasted, black bodies of victims, slipping over blood on the floors, and we have to remain in our right state of minds at the same time. It is not easy. I did my medical degree 11 years ago, and have come across a lot of cases but the sights at bomb blasts are horrific.”
Including women on the field
Rescue workers are not just limited to men. While men are needed and even preferred for more of the physical labour, in large cases where the work force is little (in the building collapse about 200 workers are on site), women are also included.
In the most recent batch, about 40 young women graduated from the Rescue Academy. Currently, about 67 have been deployed all over Punjab. Four of the women, who had just finished their shift, sat demurely behind the tent and had their tea. They were tired but happy because they had done a day’s work and they like doing what they do.
“I have a daughter and my husband also works here,” said Rizwana smiling cheerfully. “Even other girls who work here are supported by their families to do this kind of job.”
“We have always been passionate about social work,” said Zobia. “And now we have found the right place and the right method of doing it. And we receive intensive training. We are taught climbing, swimming, running, and other activities that are needed for these times. And we are taught in the same class along with boys, so there is no discrimination.”
Even then women usually stay back at the stations to do desk work because of the social taboos that they face in society. For instance, if there is a mob burning tires and people are injured, the presence of women is note likely to make a difference to the rioting public.
However, when need be, and the problem is large and unmanageable, they are called on operation. First aid, medical response, disaster management and most of all psychological counselling are what the female staff of the Rescue team do best. These are general tactics. Other women specialize too, such as in swimming. Zobia is one of these.
“Occasionally, in water disasters, we have to swim in to fish out bodies.”
Their counselling, too, is not restricted to female victims.
“We first introduce ourselves to the victim and tell them why we are there,” said Mariam.
“Then we try to make them talk so they can stray their mind from the disaster. It is important to make them talk so they are not traumatised later. We want people to look at our uniforms and feel safe and secure.”