SINGAPORE — A 68-member Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) team that helped with rescue operations in quake-hit Turkey was received with thunderous applause, cheers and garlands at Changi Airport in the early hours on Saturday (Feb 18).
Their 10-day mission, called Operation Lionheart, started on Feb 8 when an advanced team of 20 officers arrived at the city of Kahramanmaras in southern Turkey, where buildings had collapsed after a magnitude-7.8 earthquake hit in the early hours on Feb 6.
A second team, comprising 48 officers and four dogs from SCDF's K-9 unit, arrived on Feb 10 with additional equipment, medical supplies, and communication and logistics support tools.
During the 10 days, the team rescued a 12-year-old boy and a man from collapsed buildings, assisted with the retrieval of bodies from the rubble at various sites and contributed supplies to Turkish rescue teams.
It was an emotional welcome on Saturday morning for the team, as more than 400 family members and friends waited eagerly at the airport with flowers and handwritten banners to receive their loved ones. Around 50 Turkish nationals living in Singapore also turned up with both countries flags and flowers.
Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam, who was at the airport to receive the contingent, said the SCDF has been building up its capabilities since the Operation Lionheart contingent was set up in 1990.
"When we were approached on Feb 6, we agreed straightaway," he said.
Mr Shanmugam thanked the SCDF team for their hard work amidst difficult weather conditions as the temperature was five degree Celsius in the day and dropped to -3 degree Celsius at night.
"I, and all Singaporeans, are proud of you for your spirits and contributions despite the very difficult conditions... And you were working in the middle of the risk of further collapse of buildings, staying in tents and sleeping in sleeping bags. We, the Singaporeans, thank you… welcome back home," he said.
Since 1990, SCDF has gone on 20 such missions, in Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, Laos.
The contingent's commander, Colonel Chew Keng Tok, 51, said earthquakes are one of the key disaster situations that the team has trained for so they were well-equipped to carry rescue missions in collapsed buildings.
"The terrain challenge this time round is the cold winter weather… We acclimatised and equipped ourselves and learnt how to operate in the cold," said Col Chew, who had also previously gone on an earthquake rescue mission in Central Java, Indonesia, in 2006.
Turkish Ambassador to Singapore Mehmet Burcin Gonenli, who was also at the airport, said the magnitude and the dimensions of the catastrophe is too big for a single country to shoulder and thanked Singapore and the SCDF for stepping up.
Radiographer Sabrina Musthpa, 32, said her five-year-old son was happy to know that his father, Sergeant 1 (SGT1) Mohamad Rohaizad, 33, was rendering assistance to people in need as a paramedic.
"He's at the age where he is leaning towards professions such as firemen and policemen so his father is someone he can look up to," she said.
Madam Theam Ee Choon, 95, said she was very proud of her grandson Captain (Dr) Nicholas Tan, 27, who served as a doctor in the team.
"I'm very happy to see him come back; I've taken care of him for the past 20-something years so I missed him very much," she said.
Lieutenant (LTA) Abdul Rashid, 39, who was the rescue commander, said while some of his six children, aged 13 to three-months- old, were apprehensive about him going to a disaster zone, they understood this was what he had been training for.
"I have four girls and two boys and I'll be sure to tell them stories about my time in Turkey for years to come, and for the boys to prepare for their National Service," he said.
"It feels good coming back and also knowing that the whole contingent did well. There's a feeling of mission accomplished."
Human Resource manager Sevgi Can, 37, a Turkish national who has been living in Singapore for two years, said the Turkish community here is small — so when there was a call-out to welcome the team, she and her friends decided to turn up.
"The team was featured on the Turkish news and we found out they were coming back so we came because we want to convey our thanks and appreciation. Us Turks will never forget the help," she said.
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This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.