Red Tape Delays Algerian Rescue Work
Red Tape Delays Algerian Rescue Work
May. 25, 2003
BORDJ MENAIEL, Algeria (AP) _ Skip the border collie howled to say he smelled life under the debris and could not understand why no one dug to investigate. Neither could his Austrian handlers.
For international rescue teams, the drama played out in this earthquake-shattered town was all too familiar. Their most precious asset _ time _ had been squandered by bureaucratic delay and the digging equipment was needed more urgently elsewhere.
Specialists say that no matter how fast they react, crucial hours are always lost, not only to the inevitable fog of a disaster but also to local red tape, diplomatic snarls and turf battles.
With the death toll from the quake nearing 2,200 Sunday, anger grew as people in this and other stricken towns denounced the government for an inadequate response and a lack of relief supplies.
Even with United Nations coordination and some international accords, emergency relief is often an ad hoc scramble.
``You live with it and do the best you can,'' said Leif Andren, the Swedish Rescue Service veteran who made the painful call not to move his heavy digging gear to the Bordj Menaiel site found by the Austrian volunteers.
The Austrians' search dogs had barked signals indicating a missing man was still alive Saturday under a collapsed three-story building. The team asked for help to get him out.
Experts from Andren's squad responded, but their camera probes and listening gear detected nothing. Their own dogs also turned up no signs of life. ``The Austrians aren't happy, but we must set priorities,'' Andren said.
Andreas Thurriedl, who runs a driving school in Salzburg when not leading his sniffer-dog team on rescue missions, reluctantly accepted the decision.
``I'm convinced that man was alive this morning,'' he said Saturday afternoon, ``but maybe by now he is not. Who can say? A decision had to be made.''
Late Saturday, 72 hours after the quake, foreign search teams began packing up to go home, leaving behind humanitarian workers to look after homeless survivors.
The mood was mixed Sunday.
``I think it went very well,'' said French army Lt. Christophe Peltier, 29, one of 120 specialists who had clamored aboard military planes in France and were at work 20 hours after the earthquake hit at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday.
They rescued eight people from collapsed buildings in Boumerdes, including a young woman extracted through a narrow tunnel after 15 hours of hard work.
Some of the 61-man Japanese group made it from Tokyo nearly as fast as the French, although they brought less heavy gear. They saved a 21-year-old waiter who was trapped for 51 hours.
But few other successes were reported by more than 1,000 government and volunteer workers from 14 countries who came with 100 search dogs.
French policy is to scramble rescue teams without waiting for official formalities. If for some reason the stricken country refuses help, they turn around and go home. This seldom happens, but there are often delays.
A British search squad, like most foreign teams, waited at home on alert until the Algerian government asked for help.
They arrived at 2 a.m. Thursday but then spent eight hours on the tarmac waiting for Algerian paperwork and transport. They lost the rest of the day while local officials decided where they would camp.
The 97 British specialists, with seven dogs, found no survivors.
``Everything is about time in these situations,'' said John McKie, 46, a firefighter from Lancashire. ``People under there can't wait.''
As often happens with a sudden natural disaster, the earthquake threw Algeria into turmoil.
``It took us five hours to get going,'' said Mourad Benaoulai, a 39-year-old fireman and rescue diver in Zemmouri, near the epicenter. ``First we had to take care of our families and then get organized.''
Armin Schweda, 31, a civil engineer and dog handler who works with the German Red Cross, blamed the overall system for delays.
``You can't really find fault with anyone in particular,'' he said. ``Everyone is trying to help. But it would be a lot better if we were all playing the same game.''
Schweda said search efforts were hampered by inexperienced volunteers who, he said, mostly wanted to go home and boast about their good work.
Bernadette Redal, a 69-year-old grandmother with the small French group International Emergency Action, disagreed.
``When you hold in your arms someone you've been able to reach before it's too late, you realize there should be room for everyone to help,'' she said.