Mission Fire Chief Larry Watkinson (left) and Captain Norm MacLeod

Searching through the rubble: Mission firefighters return from Nepal

Mission Fire Chief Larry Watkinson and Captain Norm MacLeod were part of a 24-member team sent to help after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake.

Sammy barked excitedly at a pile of rubble in Katmandu. The way the three-year-old Lab bounced around told her handler, Mission Fire Chief Larry Watkinson, that there was somebody alive under the collapsed building.

The discovery gave the rescue team hope that lives could still be saved after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal three days earlier on April 25.

When the men carefully dug through the debris, they uncovered the source of the live scent Sammy picked up. It was a chicken, still in its crate.

Watkinson and Mission Fire/Rescue Captain Norm MacLeod, along with their specially trained dogs, Sammy and Scribbles, were part of a 24-member team made up of firefighters, doctors, nurses and search and rescue experts from around the Lower Mainland and Valley that travelled to the Asian country to help with rescue efforts.

The area was dusty, hot and humid. Flies were everywhere, and the smell of garbage lingered in the streets as people burned trash.

Dressed in boots, helmets and coveralls, Watkinson and MacLeod led their dogs through 12 square kilometres of Katmandu looking for earthquake victims still trapped in buildings. There were a total of three dogs on the team, and each one searched an area with their handler before another arrived later to confirm any findings. In addition to the dogs, the team also carried special sound equipment that could detect the slightest scratching under the surface.

“Our job was to assess the risk and search the piles of rubble in the area,” said Watkinson.

If the team found someone alive, they were to dig them out, but bodies were noted and left in place for another team to recover, unless they were easily accessible.

The Canadians didn’t find anyone alive, but located so many cadavers that Watkinson eventually lost count. They combed the capital, street by street, for six days, marking their findings on a map with GPS locations, and submitting the information to the United Nations. A recovery team with heavy machinery would be brought in later.

“It was like a maze on the back of kids’ menus,” said Watkinson.

“The majority of the buildings, about 90 per cent, had damage. Not all were completely destroyed, but a lot were.

“A seven-storey building was flattened like a pancake,” said MacLeod.

But despite the damage, locals were still living inside the buildings.

“They’re risking their lives,” said Watkinson. “But they have nowhere to go.”

The team of Canadians slept in tents outside a military base after discovering the hotel they were suppose to stay in had also been damaged.

The group also spent a day searching a remote village about three hours outside Katmandu, after they heard 70 people were trapped inside a church.

There were just 17 people there, but no survivors.

The residents of Nepal were resourceful and helped as much as they could.

“They all knew each other,” recalled Watkinson. “Some will tell us if everyone was accounted for in one building, but they’d tell us another building still has missing people.”

The team worked from daybreak until dusk. The information the locals offered helped searchers determine where to focus resources.

“We were there to work and to work hard,” said Watkinson, noting the UN declared the task a recovery mission on the day they returned.

Everywhere they went, locals followed. They were intrigued with the work being done and hopeful that survivors would be found.

And they were also interested in the dogs. Most dogs in Nepal are street animals and residents don’t bond with them.

Once people realized Sammy and Scribbles were safe and friendly, they piled on top of them with hugs and kisses, said Watkinson, noting the pets provided emotional support for search crews as well as locals.

Watkinson and MacLeod acknowledged the week was exhausting, but say they would do it again in a heartbeat.

“When we are asked to do something like this, we do it because it’s what we’re proud to do,” said Watkinson. “We’re proud to represent Mission.”

Photo courtesy of Shaun Madigan