Menu JTA Search

BEHIND THE HEADLINES Israeli rescuer dropped everything to save lives amid rubble in Turkey

TEL AVIV, Aug. 30 (JTA) — Ofer Pomeranz had just arrived in Baden for a serene Swiss vacation with his wife and three children when the phone rang. On the other end was his friend from Israel’s National Search and Rescue Team. It was Aug. 17, just hours after the ground shook for 45 devastating seconds near Istanbul, and Israel was mobilizing its special rescue unit to help find survivors. It did not take long for Pomeranz — a building contractor, the rescue unit’s chief engineer and one of its senior commanders — to realize that his summer vacation was over before it even began. “My family is very understanding,” said Pomeranz in an interview with JTA a few days after returning to Israel. “My older kids told me if I didn’t go, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.” Like most of the 330 members of Israel’s world-renowned rescue team, Pomeranz is a reserve in the army. A 44-year-old with a boyish face, he is on call 365 days a year, carries a military beeper and always has a spare uniform in the trunk of his car. When the earthquake hit Turkey, members of the search unit quickly dropped whatever they were doing — one senior commander came from as far away as Los Angeles — to help save lives. By 10 p.m. on Tuesday, as Pomeranz took his first steps through the earthquake-ravaged city of Cinarcik, his vacation was a distant memory. Pomeranz, who joined the unit in 1989, had seen disasters before. He helped rescue Israelis trapped in buildings hit by Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War and worked at the bombed-out Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994. Last year, he was dispatched to the site of the U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi, Kenya. But nothing looked quite like this. “This was completely different,” he said. “In other places, there was a building destroyed here and there but life went on as usual. Here, we saw endless buildings destroyed or tilted on their sides and thousands of people in the streets.” As chief engineer, Pomeranz’s job was to figure out what the buildings looked like before they collapsed. “We try to piece together information in order to figure out the most likely place to find survivors,” he said. “It is very difficult because the buildings were destroyed and we essentially had to reconstruct them.” He also had to ensure the safety of the rescue team while they chipped away at the rubble. “All the rescuers can think about is saving people,” he explains. “They cannot look right or left. My job was to do that for them.” During the next week, Pomeranz slept very little as he shuttled between four main Israeli headquarters in the earthquake zone. He was personally involved in the rescue of two people, including Shiran Franco, the 9-year-old Israeli girl who was dramatically pulled out of the rubble alive after five days. In total, the unit rescued 12 people and pulled 156 bodies from beneath destroyed buildings. Pomeranz arrived at the site of Shiran’s rescue about an hour before she was saved. Rescuers were reluctant to start drilling away for fear of hurting her. Pomeranz realized there was no choice — and no time. Despite his high rank, he grabbed a jackhammer and began drilling. “I saw they were hesitating so I grabbed it,” he said. “There are no ranks in this line of work.” Many of the soldiers broke down in tears when Franco was dramatically pulled out, but Pomeranz reacted with the same stoic professionalism with which he describes the rest of his arduous week in Turkey. “I had no thoughts at the time,” he said. “I was only thinking about the job. I summoned the doctor, watched her pulled out and continued to press on with the work because we thought that maybe her brother was still alive.” They soon discovered that Shiran’s twin brother was dead, as were her father and grandparents. At other sites where there was no sign of life, Pomeranz instructed his troops to press ahead as if people were alive. Their efforts did not go unnoticed. Pomeranz recalls how the local Turkish population was overwhelmed with gratitude by the work done by the Israeli troops. One Turkish Jew shadowed the Israeli unit from the moment they arrived, helping where he could, and at the end insisted on wearing an Israel Defense Force uniform along with the soldiers. Dozens of cheering Turkish citizens applauded each successful rescue and cheered gratefully as the soldiers headed for home. By Tuesday night, Aug. 24, Pomeranz was home. He was up for work the next day at 7 a.m. Fatigue is not something rescuers can allow themselves to succumb to, he says, recalling how his men worked around the clock. “When you rescue people alive, you are pushed to working endlessly,” he says. “There are no bounds to what you can do.”

NEXT STORY