Helping with the rescue efforts

Hero: Trained in Baltimore County, Sarp Yelencioglu uses his search-and-recovery skills in the areas of Turkey hardest-hit by the recent earthquake.

August 26, 1999|By Whit Mason | Whit Mason,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ISMIT, Turkey -- Sarp Yelencioglu took a final drag on his Camel cigarette and dropped it on the ground strewn with broken glass and crumbled concrete. Frowning with the weight of his decision, Sarp shouted out an order to tear down what remained of the top floors of a six-story apartment building largely destroyed by the earthquake that had struck Turkey 24 hours before.

An elderly man rushed up to him, wild-eyed, saying the decision meant giving up on finding anyone else alive. With self-assurance greater than his 26 years, Sarp explained that his rescue team had already determined that there were no survivors in the top floors. To search the bottom floors safely it was essential to get rid of the tons of concrete poised to fall at any moment.

Sarp wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a volunteer search-and-rescue organization he helped to found called Akut; but on his head, incongruously, sat a firefighter's helmet that read "Baltimore County Fire."

Sarp had bought the helmet in 1993 while attending Essex Community College and working as a firefighter with the Rosedale Volunteer Fire Department.

Sarp soon felt more at home at the station than in his own apartment. He'd get take-out food and go there to eat it, and sometimes he even slept there. "The stationhouse felt like a fraternity. The guys did everything together," he said. "That was like real American life, not like college."

Thanks to this exposure to "real" American life, Sarp said that after two years in Baltimore he'd learned to love pit beef and steamed shrimp with Old Bay seasoning and even to laugh at the very inside jokes of comedian Jeff Foxworthy.

"I was really happy in Baltimore," said Sarp. "I could go by the Bay and inhale the sea air, something I used to do in Istanbul and really missed."

Sarp was impressed that his fellow firefighters worked as volunteers; all the firemen in Turkey were professionals.

"I learned about how organizations raise money and support themselves without the government. I even became an Easter Bunny for an egg hunt fund-raiser," he said. "I never thought I'd put on a bunny costume anywhere -- but in Baltimore it seemed cool."

And he loved fighting fires and still gets a tingle when he smells the soot embedded in his canvas firefighting suit.

His biggest regret from Baltimore is not passing the final exam for the basic course at the Baltimore County Firefighting Academy in Towson because twice he arrived a little late. Without the exam, he could only ride on the truck as a fifth man.

Sarp returned to Turkey in 1995 with no college diploma or even a certificate from the Firefighting Academy but with a wealth of practical knowledge and a passionate drive to put it to work at home. After working as the lowest staffer at FM 100, Turkey's most popular radio station, a smaller station gave him a chance to discuss emergency issues in his own talk show, "Fire Department."

"My main message was that if you've got a problem, you can't just sit there and wait for the government to take care of you, you have to do something for yourself."

The show was a hit and within a few months Sarp was back at FM 100 -- as a prime time evening DJ. At the same time he heard that some mountaineers were starting Akut, Turkey's first volunteer search-and-rescue organization.

"People didn't believe in us at first," he said. "They thought we were just showing off." Attitudes began to change last year after Akut rescued two people trapped in demolished buildings after an earthquake in southeast Turkey.

One of the most valuable lessons Sarp learned in Baltimore was the importance of organizing emergency services efficiently.

Last week Akut was on the scene of demolished buildings within two hours, beating state emergency services by hours if not days. Akut has now earned the respect of everyone in Turkey. Companies have donated a huge supply of equipment, food and medical supplies. Hundreds of Turks have joined Akut in the last week.

"This is so normal," said Sarp. "Akut is just doing what should have been done all along. Look at all the foreign teams who've come here to help -- most of them are volunteers."

When the earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale struck Turkey at 3 a.m. August 17, Sarp said, he reached the street -- in his underwear -- within 15 seconds. He had been terrified of being buried alive ever since working on last year's earthquake in southeastern Turkey.

As he stood on the street that was rolling like swells on the ocean, Sarp felt a pang of guilt about not taking his dog Charlie, a basset hound he'd picked up at the animal shelter in Baltimore. "But he's so slow, and he weighs at least 70 pounds," Sarp explained, more to himself than the reporter interviewing him. When the earth stopped shaking after 45 seconds, he ran upstairs to get Charlie and a few other essentials.

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