“Absolute Devastation Everywhere”: LACoFD Paramedic Returns From Turkey’s Earthquake Rescue Effort

J.P. Hilsabeck and canine Bond returned on Monday after working to find survivors in the destruction of the monster earthquake

On the early February night he arrived from L.A. in the Turkish city of Adiyaman, John Paul “J.P.” Hilsabeck was whisked away into the darkness to begin combing through the rubble, along with his search and rescue canine, Bond, where the duo and their teammates drove through the streets of a once-thriving city.

As temperatures dropped below freezing, inside the Toyota Hilux pickup Hilsabeck and his recon team scanned their digital maps as they communicated with their driver via Google translate. With the help of local intel, they focused their attention, hoping to find people trapped under concrete and steel in the nearly leveled city.

“It was pretty much a war zone,” Hilsabeck tells LAMag in an interview. “There were 10-story buildings that just came down, pancake-collapsed, just absolute devastation everywhere—you’d come up and it’d just be entire city blocks in rubble.”

Hilsabeck, a firefighter paramedic with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, is a canine handler for the department’s elite Urban Search and Rescue team, one of only two in the country that can be deployed internationally. Along with the team from Fairfax, Virginia, 159 emergency professionals and 12 rescue dogs boarded a C-17 aircraft less than 24 hours after a monster 7.8 earthquake devastated its southern border and parts of Syria on February 6.

Members of the Fairfax USAR team on a search and rescue mission (USAID)

The death toll from the quake is over 50,000 people; more than 100,000 buildings were damaged and 1.5 million have been left homeless.

When members of the USAR teams arrived at the Incirlik Air Base in Adana, they were loaded onto buses and their 170,000 pounds of gear was placed on flatbeds—this included all the food and water they’ll need as they made the 200-mile journey to Adiyaman, where they began their work immediately.

“We got some vehicles, we made small recon teams, and we were sent out,” Hilsabeck tells LAMag. “We were trying to get out there and do what we can as fast as we can so we can save as many people as we can.”

A four-year-old black Labrador Retriever, Bond has been working alongside Hilsabeck for three years now. The first year they spent in training to get Bond certified with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Each has now learned how the other operates, allowing Bond to perform under stress without being influenced by noise or distractions.

Specialized search and rescue canines are a welcomed addition to the effort. Bond’s ability to scale mounds of rubble and his incredible sense of smell allows him to signal—via bark—if he thinks he’s found someone. Once notified, his human teammates bring in secondary equipment for confirmation.

“We could drill holes through the concrete [and] get the cameras in there,” Hilsabeck said. “We also have listening devices that would go along with that.”

Still, Bond’s duties are not easy and even he must be cautious as he traverses the remnants of leveled city blocks.

“You look at the collapsed buildings that you’re about to send your dog into and there’s rebar everywhere, there’s widow-makers, all these dangers,” Hilsabeck said. “And now you’re at nighttime and the risk for him to get hurt is very high and you have to have that trust in him.”

Although incredible stories of survival have been reported, Hilsabeck’s team wasn’t as lucky.

Having arrived 72 hours after the earthquake, the likelihood of survivors had already diminished significantly—especially with freezing temperatures confronting the team with the tragic realities of the destruction.

“As far as finding any alive people, [we found] zero,” Hilsabeck said. “As far as people that were already dead. I couldn’t even give you a number.”

For the first three or four days of their effort, the duo and their teammates were caught in a whirlwind as they continued working and searching, with little time for rest. This is when the magnitude of the situation began to sink in. “You’re taking in the amount of devastation that actually went on and putting it into perspective,” he said. “The cities that got decimated, it’s not going to take five or 10 years to rebuild. You’re looking at [decades].”

As Hilsabeck was driven through the city, he would see locals standing in the street warming themselves around fires. For those who’ve lost their homes, he isn’t sure what’s going to happen, he just knows that for the foreseeable future, they have nowhere to go.

“They’re just building these tents… that’s where these people are going to live for I don’t even know how long,” he says. “Their apartments that they used to live in, there’s nothing left.”

Corner-cutting and dodgy practices have been blamed for the vast devastation. 

“This is a disaster caused by shoddy construction, not by an earthquake,” David Alexander, a professor of emergency planning at University College London, told the Associated Press. So far, 564 people have been investigated by Turkish authorities and 160 have been detained, the New York Times reports.

While the two USAR teams arrived back in the U.S. late Monday, almost two weeks after their deployment, the U.S. will continue to provide aid to the affected areas, according to Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.

“For 11 days, U.S. search-and-rescue crews have been on the ground in Turkiye. Now, as they prepare to come home, we know our work in Turkey and Syria is far from complete,” Powers tweeted. “As we transition from rescue operations, the rest of our disaster response team will remain on the ground to lead U.S. efforts to surge aid and relief supplies.”

The U.S. has said that it will provide $85 million in humanitarian assistance.

For Hilsabeck—who also starred in season 35 of the reality competition series Survivor—and for Bond, a square meal was waiting for them in L.A. after they’d subsisted on MREs while in Turkey. For now, their plan is to rest and get back into their own time zone, knowing very well that if they’re called upon, they’ll be ready to go—especially Bond.

“[He] is bred to work,” he said. “He went out there [and] he kicked butt and did what he was supposed to do. I was very, very proud of him.”

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