Ready for disaster

‘Yahtza’ unit made up of volunteers, all of whom sign a contract allowing army to call them up whenever, however long is needed, without notice.

Yahtza National Search and Rescue reserve unit 521 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson Unit)
Yahtza National Search and Rescue reserve unit 521
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson Unit)
Lt.-Col. (res.) Amir Golan has saved no shortage of lives at home and abroad, but there are some moments that will stay with him forever.
“The whole time, her eyes had been closed,” he says, describing the rescue of a young girl in Turkey after the country’s devastating 1999 earthquakes. “Eventually someone came and washed her face... and she opened her eyes. She had blue eyes, and I’ll never forget them. She went from a corpse to a human being.”
Golan is the deputy commander of Yahtza, the National Search and Rescue reserve unit that takes charge of rescue missions during disasters at home and abroad. Like all superheroes, he carries on a deceptively normal life – in his case, as a mechanical engineer – until disaster strikes. Then he springs to action, saving lives, often against all odds.
Yahtza was founded in 1982 after the first Tyre disaster in Lebanon when the seven-story building housing Israel’s military government in the city collapsed, killing or wounding more than 100 Israelis and Lebanese. The army was unprepared for such an event, and nobody was saved from the wreckage.
Then IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan gave the order to establish a dedicated search-and-rescue unit. When there was another attack on Tyre less than a year later, the unit sprang into action for the first time, saving three people from the rubble.
“With that, they proved the need for such a unit,” says Golan.
Since the unit’s establishment, it has gone on dozens of missions at home and around the world, dealing with the aftermath of earthquakes, tsunamis and attacks.
“We’ve built up a lot of experience,” says Golan. “Most people in the unit have been in at least one incident. Everyone is here after their army service and some amount of time in the reserves. They arrive in the unit mostly through connections that they’ve built up in their military or civilian careers. We collect people with the ability to contribute. We gain experience and build up high-quality manpower – people who work in the medical field, in construction, or with heavy tools.” He added that the unit includes 40 female members, including two mothers with children.
The unit is made up strictly of volunteers, all of whom sign a contract allowing the army to call them up whenever is needed, for however long is needed, without notice. They are prepared to respond to all sorts of situations.
“Everyone feels like an essential part of the work. One of the hardest things is deciding who doesn’t go on the mission,” says Golan. “Sometimes people consider not signing [the contract] but then they say, ‘what, you guys will go and I’ll stay at home?’”
Training can be tricky to organize. The unit looks for buildings that are slated for demolition and plants dummies to act as “victims” to be rescued. When the building is demolished, they move in and treat the scene as a disaster site.
In wartime they are called up just like regular reserve units. In the event of a disaster within Israel, most members of the unit arrive directly.
“The moment that we realize there’s been a disaster they call up the unit and most people come straight from their homes,” explains Golan. “Most go right to the disaster site, and some come to the unit headquarters to assemble the gear that we need. We link up to the forces that are already at the site and take command.”
At the Versailles wedding hall disaster in Jerusalem in 2001, in which 23 people were killed when the dance floor collapsed, “we were on the scene within an hour, and within three hours the whole unit was on the scene, with all of our gear.”
When there’s a disaster abroad, the situation changes completely. After the government assesses the situation and decides whether to offer aid, there’s a waiting period before hearing whether the offer has been accepted. During that time, members of the unit are already hard at work.
“We put together two or three possible set-ups for the delegation we might send, depending on what will be needed – if it’s more of a medical team, more rescuing or a humanitarian mission. We get prepared for every possibility,” says Golan.
“When the Twin Towers fell, we were packed and ready at the airport – one plane full of gear and another full of rescuers. We waited for two days until we heard that we weren’t needed.”
Quick work is essential for the unit’s work to be effective. It operates based on the “golden rule” that 90 percent of the people who will be rescued alive from a disaster scene are rescued within 24 hours of the event.
“Our goal is to get to the site as fast as we can and to manage those first 24 hours as effectively as we can,” says Golan. “When there are incidents abroad we won’t get there in less than 24 hours, but there are always exceptions to the rule – people who survive days in the rubble against all odds.”
Members of the unit have no shortage of such miraculous stories of the “other 10%” who managed to hold on until rescuers discovered them. They remember everything – names, places, sounds, smells, specific obstacles that got in the way of this rescue or that. For each rescuer there are particular stories and experiences that stand out.
Captain (res.) Nir Hazut is a lawyer who, after having been wounded in Lebanon while serving in the combat engineering corps, had to fight the system in order to be allowed to do reserve duty. When he found out about the unit he did everything he could to be a part of it. His first time on a mission was in 2010, when he was part of the delegation sent to Haiti following the country’s overwhelming earthquake. The story of Gilles is one that will stay with him forever.
“It was the fourth day after the earthquake and the second day after our work there [had begun]. We arrived at a building, the Ministry of Tax and Customs. It was already our third building that day. When we got there, we saw Gilles’s cousin standing outside – he said that he had talked to Gilles, and that he was still alive inside. We couldn’t see him, but we managed to speak with him. Three floors had collapsed on him. Some rescue workers had already been in the building. They had saved two or three people, including Gilles’s boss, and then given up,” said Hazut.
The team was met with no shortage of difficulties. Team members worked in turns in a narrow passage into which only two or three people could enter at once.
“Eventually I saw a table, and thought it would take a long time to get it out of the way. To my surprise, six or seven minutes later I yelled out that we were ready to move him,” said Hazut. “I dragged him out, and it was physically the hardest thing that I have ever done. Centimeter by centimeter, both of us lying on the ground. The whole rescue took about seven and a half hours.”
“As a father, it reminded me of birth.
We’re like midwives wearing green and helmets. What we do, it’s giving them their life as a gift. If we hadn’t been there, chances are that nobody would have come to him.”
And then there is the story of Elif, the Turkish girl whose eyes Amir Golan so vividly remembers. Colonel (res.) Zohar Moshe, who serves in the unit as a company commander, recalls the story.
“We were in the city of Cinercik, at a complex of eight vacation homes. We were focused on a building where there had been 12 Israelis. The Turks began noticing the work that we were doing... [and we were called to] a building where a hole had been made, through which we could see the ear and mouth of a young girl, who was muttering. Immediately a team was sent.”
The girl’s face was only 10 centimeters below the concrete wall of the building, so the team was forced to work incredibly carefully using their hands and small hammers.
Eventually they succeeded in exposing her upper body.
“It was then that we noticed the headlight of a car,” says Moshe. “This was strange, because she had been in her bedroom – she was lying in her bed. “We kept working, and noticed a bumper and a license plate, and saw that her legs were folded downwards.
What had happened was that her bedroom had been pushed into the garage, and the car was on her heel.” By the time the team discovered the car, they had already been at work for 10 to 12 hours.
“There were orders to stop working because of the risk of aftershocks, but we refused. We started working from a different point, and after six or seven hours we reached her foot, which was under the wheel of the car- on which were four stories of collapsed building.”
The team then began brainstorming solutions.
This method of brainstorming, where creativity and innovation are at the forefront and rank and seniority are put aside, is what Moshe describes as one of the great strengths of the unit.
Eventually the rescuers came up with a solution and after two unsuccessful attempts, pulled out Elif whose heel was later amputated.
“A year later, she was brought to [the Israeli rehabilitation facility] Beit Loewenstein. My daughters went bowling with her.”
With all of the unit’s successes, tragedies are also inevitable at the disaster scenes where they work; but with incredible determination, they keep these situations to a minimum.
“Except for one place where we heard signs of life and couldn’t get the person out... every other time we’ve succeeded,” says Moshe. “This one time was in Kenya.
We were limited by the local authorities regarding where we could go. This particular building had a vault in it, so they wouldn’t let us work.”
“Her name was Rose. For anyone who was there – the name Rose will still give him goose bumps.”
The team’s great success with Gilles also has a tragic side. “We had originally arrived at the building [where we found Gilles] in order to find a young woman. Her husband was standing at the entrance and told us, ‘my wife is here, she’s alive, we heard her at night,’” recalls Moshe.
Gilles told the team that he had, at first, heard the woman – but that he had heard no signs of life more recently.
“After we removed Gilles from the building, we went outside and were euphoric. We were on our way to the next site when the woman’s husband came back to us and asked, ‘what about my wife?’” “I realized that just telling him wouldn’t be enough. We took him back into the building to look around with us one last time.
We called to her, we yelled to her and there were no signs of life.
We went out and he said, ‘Thank you for everything you’re doing for us.’” Wherever they are, the unit pays strict attention to the morality of the way they do their work.
“In a lot of countries, it’s common after a few weeks to say ‘that’s it, we won’t find anyone else alive,’ and to take heavy equipment and remove all of the ruins – which may still have human remains in them,” explains Golan. He says that their unit never acts in such a way. In every place where there are Jews and Israelis, we are required to bring them to the grave as whole as possible. We work with ZAKA [volunteer rescue and recovery organization] at home and abroad. They’re part of the unit.”
With the difficult situations that they face, the tight bonds between the members of the unit are incredibly important.
“If you say you’re having a hard time, that doesn’t mean that you’re not as good or not as professional. The openness and the friendship is the key,” says Golan. He says that when members of the unit return from a mission, there is a debriefing period to help them process their experiences before returning to their normal, lower-adrenaline routines. But still, the transition can be a stark one.
“First of all, I shower and scrub myself again and again until the smell comes off,” says Hazut, explaining his homecoming routine.
“There are lots of phone calls to friends from the unit, ones who were there with me and ones who weren’t. I can tell them what happened right away. It takes more time at home. You try to protect them.”
“When a firefighter goes to work in the morning, he is mentally and physically prepared for what he is going to experience. For us, it’s a sharp transition – from working to win a case, and then hours later to be flying to hell on earth. Then you come back and keep trying to win the case.”
The members of Yahtza are also dependant on strong support at home to help them deal with their unpredictable work.
“The real heroes of the story are our wives. We leave the second our beepers go off and might not be back for two weeks,” says Moshe. “In the meantime, our wives have to carry on with the regular routine, which is much harder. If they didn’t do that, then we couldn’t do what we do.”
“Our employers also need to be very patient and tolerant. We just get up and disappear – it’s not like normal reserve service, where we know in advance when it will be and for how long and can make advance preparations. You notify the boss that you’re leaving, you can’t say when you’ll be back or who will do the work instead of you.
“Whoever doesn’t have these things doesn’t last long in the unit.”
Like everything else, Yahtza’s work at each disaster zone eventually comes to an end.
“You could switch your citizenship and stay for two years, just doing search and rescue [in every place that we go],” says Moshe.
“There’s a period of time where there’s still a chance of finding people alive. After two weeks, despite all of the destruction, you can’t help anymore.”
When they return home, the rescuers take with them far more than an acute sense of how every building they see standing up would look when it falls. Moshe recalls what he felt when he finally was able to rescue Elif from the wreckage of her home.
“This was my first rescue where I actually reached a person. It was long and complicated: 17 hours, most of them at night. A lot of obstacles and difficulties, and points where I felt like I had lost the belief that I could get her out alive – which is the worst feeling for a rescuer,” says Moshe. “When they took her out, I had been awake for 40 hours, and it took me another five to calm down.
“It proved that nothing can stop us.”