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

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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick receives a first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. seniors aged 80+ can start to sign up for vaccination on March 8

Long-term care residents protected by shots already given

A massive fire at the Delair Court Apartments destroyed one of the buildings on the morning of Feb. 14. (John Morrow/Abbotsford News)
Salvation Army thanks residents for ‘incredible generosity’ to victims of apartment fire

16 palettes of items donated to those who lost homes in Delair Court Apartments

Dr. Carin Bondar moderates a panel for an online event being hosted by UFV on March 8 for International Women’s Day. (Submitted photo)
UFV presents International Women’s Day event with Choose to Challenge theme

Online panel on Monday, March 8 discuss how they handle life’s challenges

web
Spirit Animal Totems: The Spirit Within exhibition on display at Mission gallery

The work of Mission artist Nancy Arcand showcased at Rock Family Gallery from March 2-20

(Black Press file photo)
Child in critical condition after Harrison Mills incident, homicide investigators deployed

The child was transported to hospital but is not expected to survive

Langley resident Carrie MacKay shared a video showing how stairs are a challenge after spending weeks in hospital battling COVID-19 (Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Stairs a challenge for B.C. woman who chronicled COVID-19 battle

‘I can now walk for six (to) 10 minutes a day’

Face mask hangs from a rear-view mirror. (Black Press image)
B.C. CDC unveils guide on how to carpool during the pandemic

Wearing masks, keeping windows open key to slowing the spread of COVID-19

Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen takes part in an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on October 27, 2020. The City of Vancouver says it has purchased a former hotel at a major thoroughfare that can house about 65 units to accommodate homeless people. A joint news release by the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and city says 2075 Kingsway, Days Inn by Wyndham Vancouver, will be ready for accommodation this November. The Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen also announced a $51.5 million Rapid Housing Initiative for Vancouver that is expected to create 135 new affordable homes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Former Vancouver hotel to be converted to 65 units for homeless people by the fall

The former Days Inn on Kingsway will be ready to house people in November

B.C. Court of Appeal in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Murder conviction upheld in case where Surrey mom was stabbed in front of her kids

Jury in 2017 found Tanpreet Kaur Athwal, aka Sonia Kaur Gill, guilty of first-degree murder in 2007 death of Amanpreet Bahia, 33

Det. Sgt. Jim Callender. (Hamilton Police Service screenshot)
B.C. man dead, woman seriously injured after shooting in Hamilton, Ont.

The man was in the process of moving to the greater Toronto area, police say

A GoFundMe campaign for Riley Stevens and his family has raised more than $5,700 since launching last week. (Contributed photo)
White Rock mom of sick tot ‘totally blown away’ by donations, offers help

GoFundMe campaign to help family of Riley Stevens crests $5,700

Sewage plant in Lower Mainland, operated by Metro Vancouver. (Metro Vancouver screenshot)
‘Poop tracker’ launches as researchers test Lower Mainland sewage water for COVID-19

‘Studying the virus in wastewater allows researchers to look at an entire population…’

(Pxhere)
Compensation fund opens for B.C. students negatively affected by incorrect exam marks

Marks for 2019 provincial exams were incorrectly tabulated

Most Read