On Tuesday, January 5th when media in Iceland first reported news of the disastrous earthquakes in Haiti, an Icelandic earthquake search and rescue (SAR) team of 37 persons was already preparing to leave for the Caribbean island.
Since earthquakes and avalanches are anything but uncommon in Iceland, the country has specially trained rescue workers, including search dogs, who find and dig out people under collapsed
buildings and other wreckage.
After working for most of Tuesday night preparing, in co-operation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and undergoing a medical examination, by 10:00 Wednesday the team was on its way to Haiti via Boston.
The Ministry chartered an Icelandair plane to transport the group. After personally wishing the team well before they departed, Foreign Affairs Minister Össur Skarphéðinsson was asked about the cost of sending the rescue team and equipment. He said it was estimated at around ISK 23 million (well over CAD 200,000) and added in response to the unasked question, “We’ll find that money”.
The Icelandic troupe was one of the first to get to work, together with American, Belgian and Chinese groups. “The situation in Port-au-Prince appears to be one of utter chaos,” said Ásgeir Baldur Böðvarsson of the international division of Landsbjörg SAR, “so the first task awaiting them is to get organized and make contact with the authorities. They have to try and find out where and how they can set up camp, then where help is needed and how they can best assist. It’s likely to be difficult.
From the sound of things, the scale of the catastrophe is enormous and the local people perhaps not especially well prepared.” Iceland’s rescue team was recently certified for international work by the UN. “Besides having the necessary experties, this requires that it be completely self-sufficient – take along all its own food, sanitary and medical supplies, medical personnel to ensure their own health and safety,”
Ásgeir explained. All of the participants have been trained extensively and have years of experience, for instance, in avalanche rescue and assisting at the scene of accidents. Gunnar Stefánsson, director of rescue work at Landsbjörg SAR described the equipment the team would be taking along with them. “We take water – seven tonnes of water – and food supplies to last us seven to ten days. We can’t expect to receive any supplies of this sort.
Then we have a lot of rescue equipment, search cameras, equipment to lift structures, and medical supplies. And we have bicycles – we requested motor vehicle transport at the airport, but given the situation it’s impossible to say what awaits us.”
The first task after landing in Haiti on Wednesday afternoon was to unload their cargo from the plane – which had to be done manually since no equipment was available at the airport, which had also been hard hit by the quake.
The next day the SAR team got right to work in the wreckage of a four-storey popular shopping centre Caribbean Market, where they managed to free three women who were only slightly injured but imprisoned under the collapsed structure.
The rescue workers said they would continue as long as it was light, but electricity and street lighting is currently unavailable in Port au Prince, so darkness limits rescue efforts. Through arrangements made by the Foreign Ministry, the Icelandair plane transporting the troupe then continued on to Nassau, in the Bahamas, with some 80 passengers, mostly tourists from the US and Canada who were fleeing Haiti.
Six of the passengers flew back to Germany with a stop in Iceland. A family with three children described having to make their way across a city in ruins, strewn with corpses.