Security concerns and delays frustrate British rescue workers

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The Independent US

At lunchtime, a passer-by heard faint screams coming from the ruins of a two storey house in the hillside neighbourhood of De Pres. Minutes later, a team of British rescue workers were summoned to the scene. And after four long hours of digging, a 39-year-old woman was pulled from the rubble. “Thank you, thank you!” she cried. 

For the 20-odd men of RAPID UK, a search-and-rescue team who dropped everything to rush to Haiti when they heard news of Tuesday’s quake, it was just another day at the office. After finally reaching Port-au-Prince on Friday morning, they set to work. By Saturday evening, when The Independent ran into them, they’d already managed to save four lives. 

“We had to go over the top and get to her by cutting through a concrete wall,” said Anthony Thomas, 47, who when he’s not in disaster area works as a decorator in Devon. “She had fallen into a small gap between two walls. It was only a few inches wide, and she couldn’t move at all. But she’d managed to find a good supply of air.” 

Amazingly, the victim, who was immediately rushed to a field hospital at the Port-au-Prince airport, was still in one piece when she emerged into the sunlight. “She was fully conscious and fully and fairly well, apart from a cut on her arm and obviously the dehydration,” added Thomas. “She’d ended up in an air pocket between two floors.” 

The woman’s daughter, whose arm she was holding when they emerged, wasn’t so lucky. Paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene. 

Britain has sent roughly 65 men like Thomas, along with colleagues Simon Thompson and Brian Davison, to Haiti, along with two rescue dogs. They are now among the roughly 1,000 rescue workers (and 100 dogs) who have finally managed to reach Haiti and begin searching the rubble for survivors. 

It took them three days to get here, after being stalled at an airport in Santa Domingo, when American air-traffic-control refused to let them land in Port-au-Prince. They were only allowed in when the British Government lodged a formal complaint. And all of their heavy equipment remains stranded overseas. 

“All our big kit and machines have been stranded, so we are having to use hammers, bolters and our hands to get through to people” said Thompson, a telecoms engineer from Farnborough. “Obviously the dehydration is the main problem. It isn’t terribly hot, but after five or six days anyone will have problems.” 

While logistics meant that precious days were lost getting rescue teams to the scene, security concerns are now the main thing hindering their work: usually, volunteers for RAPID would work round-the-clock. But their superiors have insisted that they return to the local airport after dark. 

“It’s frustrating, because people have all seemed very friendly and happy that we’re here. But it’s what we have to deal with,” added Thompson. "It needs doing, and we’ll carry on as long as there’s still hope: where there’s a chance, we will keep on doing our job.”