A Conversation with Mr. Eli Beer, President and Founder of United Hatzalah
Yated: Thank you for talking to us, Reb Eli. Could you take me back to the beginning, when you first heard of the earthquake in Turkey?
EB: Sure. As Israel is a neighbor of Turkey and on the Syrian-African Fault Line, almost everyone in Israel felt the second tremor of the earthquake; some Israelis felt the first one as well. As we boruch Hashem have a large team of rescue workers and medical professionals who already have a response protocol for natural disasters in place, we were immediately inundated with calls from our volunteers saying that they were eager and ready to go help. Klal Yisroel are rachmonim bnei rachmonim, and we have an innate desire to help anyone that we can — not only fellow Jews but gentiles as well.
So, within a few hours, we had a crew of 35 volunteers who were ready to go as the initial team to set up a field clinic and begin the rescue work. We booked a flight with El Al and our team flew to Turkey to meet up with our IDF counterparts, who had been sent even earlier as a group of 150 soldiers. In situations like these, they do the heavy lifting and we provide the medical and trauma care.
What were some of your early experiences upon your arrival?
Well, it was a bit humorous, but when our El Al plane pulled up on the tarmac in the Turkish airport, we saw that the neighboring plane was from Iran. We waved at them and tried to strike up a conversation, but they weren’t interested in engaging with us at all. The next issue that we encountered was getting from the airport to the Gaziantep region where the earthquake had wrought the most damage. The earthquake had knocked almost all of the gas stations out of commission, so it was actually very difficult to get anywhere by car. It was the Jewish community of Istanbul, in particular a fellow named Eddie, who came to our aid and drove us into Gaziantep.
We brought ten tons of medical equipment with us from Israel which was crucial to our efforts. Morphine and other pain medication, monitors and ultrasound machines to check for internal bleeding, etc., all of which were very necessary. When we left this past Sunday, the Turkish hospital asked if we could loan them a lot of the equipment, which we left in their hands. We also brought hundreds of warming pads which were key to helping people survive. Hundreds of thousands of people are living on the streets in the freezing cold, and these special warming pads could be inserted into sleeping bags and make the difference between life and death.
Were the local people in Gaziantep receptive and welcoming to the Hatzalah and IDF teams when you arrived?
Very much so. They were hugging us and giving us coffee etc., and when we would pull someone out of the rubble, the people there would start shouting “Allahu Akbar!” Initially, that scared some of our people, but they soon realized that it wasn’t a shout of anger or violence, but rather an expression of their thanks and gratitude. We also brought a ton of food with us from Israel that we were handing out to the locals. We brought beef jerky that doesn’t need refrigeration that made the locals dance for joy. “Halal!” they exclaimed, pointing to the hechsher on the packages. They were all praising the “rabbis” who arrived from Israel. I think they were under the impression that anyone who wears a yarmulke is a rabbi. Regardless, it was a tremendous kiddush Hashem.
Can you tell me a bit about the rescue protocols and techniques that you used?
Well, the first thing that needs to be assessed is whether or not it is safe to start digging in the rubble of a collapsed building; you don’t want the remainder of a building or a mountain of rubble to come falling down on the volunteers. So, the IDF had engineers with them who would make those assessments. Often, we would begin administering aid to those trapped under the rubble even before they were extracted; they were, understandably, dehydrated and in immense pain. We would therefore sometimes insert an IV, administer morphine, and provide warming blankets, while the IDF worked on the actual extraction. We also brought drones that we use for search and rescue missions that can detect the thermal heat of human beings. We use them to search in big forests when people go missing, but they were also able to detect the exact spots under the rubble where people were trapped. We saved a number of people with those drones, including a 7-year-old girl.
Aside from your initial experience at the airport, did you have any other interactions with the local Turkish Jewish communities?
Rabbi Mendy Chitrik from the Chabad of Istanbul was very helpful. He brought us delicious food for Shabbos and for the rest of our trip. The community of Istanbul, although small in number, is actually very prominent and influential, and facilitated a lot of our trip.
How long were you there and how did your efforts progress over time?
We were there for seven days. During the first few days, we were able to save many people. Unfortunately, as time went on, it became clearer to us that there weren’t any more survivors. The temperature in Turkey was really freezing, and many people froze to death. As time went on, we noticed the local population was getting more and more frustrated by the lack of good news. Although it was pretty clear that there wasn’t much more that could be done, we could understand the emotional rage that the people were feeling. Unfortunately, it got to the point where threats were made against our crew, demanding that we do more to save those still trapped under the rubble.
Our security detail was also informed that a number of ISIS prisoners had escaped from a local prison and that the authorities were unable to locate them. That, together with the threats from the locals, together with the fact that there really didn’t seem like there was anything left to do, convinced us that it was time to go. El Al was unable to provide us with a plane in the timeframe that we felt we needed, so we contacted Dr. Miriam Adelstein who sent us two planes right away.
Thank you for talking to us, and may Hakadosh Boruch Hu enable you to continue your special work!