Jerusalem — On Friday afternoon, just a few hours after two horrific explosions rocked the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, First Sgt. Ilan Cryton received the call he had been expecting.
“I’d heard about the explosion on CNN but had to go out, so I kept my mobile phone open,” says the 25-year-old reservist, a member of the Israel Defense Force’s crack search-and-rescue team. “I had two hours to get ready, but luckily I live close to the base.”
By Saturday morning, Cryton and 150 other Israeli soldiers, physicians and rescue and trauma specialists arrived in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, and rushed to the bomb site. Realizing that dozens, perhaps hundreds of people were trapped under tons of rubble, they immediately began a life-and-death search to locate survivors.
Using machinery they had brought from Israel, and in some cases their bare hands, the Israelis joined Kenyan soldiers (and later an international team of experts) in the desperate search for people trapped beneath layers of crushed stone. In a dramatic rescue, Israeli sniffer dogs, wearing Star of David cloth tags, discovered a Kenyan man alive under the rubble. After several hours of digging, the Israelis brought out Sammy Nganga from a first-floor office of Gateway House neighboring the embassy. Doctors were able to save Nganga’s crushed leg, and he is expected to recover.
Although he does not dwell on it, Cryton, who returned to Israel this week, acknowledges that the operation was exhausting — the rescuers worked two days without sleep — and extremely dangerous. Recalling how he and a small team of soldiers climbed the emergency stairs of a building whose interior had been completely blown out, he says, “You could feel the building moving, slowly collapsing beneath us.”
Despite the danger, however, the effort was worth it: The team, which completed its mission Wednesday, discovered a mother and her young son — dazed but alive — on the 22nd floor of a building near the embassy “They were in shock. The boy didn’t speak at all,” Cryton said.
“There was blood and glass everywhere. We gave them water and tried to calm them down. They didn’t know who we were, but they knew we didn’t look like local people.
“You just hope that there’s someone still alive, but seeing the buildings you can’t believe that someone is …” he said, his voice trailing off. “You wish you could save more lives, but all the time you hope.”
Many weren’t as fortunate as the mother and son. At least 250 were killed and more than 5,000 injured in the two attacks.
Since 1982, when the IDF Rescue Unit was established after the bombing of the IDF Command in Tyre during the Lebanon War, Israeli soldiers have been risking their lives in the hope of saving others.
The team, which quickly became one of the army’s more popular reserve units, rushed to Mexico City in September 1995, after earthquakes left thousands of people trapped under collapsed buildings. It performed the same mission in December 1988, when a powerful earthquake hit Armenia, leaving tens of thousands dead or injured.
The special rescue unit, whose main duty is to save Israelis trapped in debris from terror bombings and missile attacks, is comprised of 400 engineers, medical personnel and other disaster relief experts. It makes use of specially trained dogs that bark when they detect human scent in the rubble. A sensitive audio device is placed near the area to detect breathing. In the Nairobi disaster, Israeli rescuers used a 150-foot crane, drills and blowtorches to scour the wreckage looking for survivors.
The unit accumulated much of its professional experience during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when Iraqi Scud missiles hit Israeli population centers. Only one person died in those attacks, but the rescue unit was there, with its yellow helmets and sniffing dogs, ready to save lives.
Team members found themselves helping “their own” after the March 1992 bomb blast that rocked the Israeli embassy building in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Twenty-nine people, including several Israelis, were killed and 250 were injured. Many of those buried alive were discovered by IDF tracking dogs.
In June 1994, the IDF flew a medical team of doctors and medical staff with medical supplies, food and clothing to Rwanda in an effort to aid refugees caught in a civil war. And in July 1997, IDF helicopter pilots helped Turkey extinguish a huge fire that engulfed several Turkish arms factories. The fire had threatened an adjacent city.
Effi Ben-Matitayahu, deputy spokesman at the Foreign Ministry, says that Israel’s long tradition of providing humanitarian aid and technical expertise to dozens of countries is “a fulfillment of the legacy of Judaism.”
He noted that “since the late ’50s and early ’60s we have been providing our experience and expertise to many countries, especially developing countries in Africa. We have shared our own workable solutions with others who need it.”
Hopefully, Ben-Matitayahu said, Israel is living up to its goal of being a “light unto the nations.”
“People think that we’re so busy with our internal affairs, we’re not in a position to help others. But in fact Israel is an example of a country that finds the energy, the time, the will and the ability to help others. This is one of the most important legacies of Israel’s creation.”
For Sgt. Ilan Cryton, the painful memories have momentarily overshadowed such existential notions.
“I’m feeling a bit shaky. I see flashes of bodies and body parts,” he said.
But he is also proud of his unit. “I’m proud for Israel,” Cryton said, “and I’m proud that people know that Israel is ready to help people.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.