UK teams fly in to join the hunt for survivors

Relief effort

A british "heavy team" of search and rescue experts has been deployed to Japan to join a global relief effort in a desperate search for survivors.

The 63-strong crew, one of just 17 in the world, arrived in the stricken country yesterday morning, less than 48 hours after the earthquake hit the northern city of Sendai.

Armed with 11 tons of specialist lifting, cutting and digging equipment, radiation suits, medical personnel, two sniffer dogs and enough food and water to render them self-sufficient for two weeks, they've teamed up with fellow UN-backed members from countries including the US, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand and China to focus efforts on locating the wounded.

Many of the deployed returned from rescue operations in Christchurch, New Zealand, less than two weeks ago, having previously worked on disaster zones in Haiti and Indonesia. They will remain in situ for at least 10 days – after which the chance of locating life beneath the debris will be slim.

Group manager Peter Crook, who led the UK International Search and Rescue (Isar) team in New Zealand, heads the UK Operations team from Hampshire Fire and Rescue Headquarters. "We're the main communication link between the guys out in Japan and the UK," he said. "We relay information between the men out there, their families, the Government and the Department for International Development. They've been on the ground since Sunday morning and are trying to get to Ofunato, 120km from Sendai. It's got a population of 42,000 and has been badly hit. It's extremely difficult for the team to get there, and they're working with the US military to gain access via helicopter. No search teams have been there yet and it's fairly remote so their main priority is to start pulling out survivors. They won't go somewhere that's been flattened and where there's no hope of finding life. Ofunato has been partially destroyed, so there's still hope."

Gareth Haghley, from a West Midlands-based Isar team, is the British welfare liaison for a six-strong command and control team out in Japan. "They're trained in all kinds of collapse structure work – breaking through concrete, acoustic listening, search canines, medical teams and swift water rescue," he said.

"Some of [their families] won't watch the news because they're terrified that their husbands aren't going to come back. It helps the team out there to know their wives and girlfriends are being looked after," he added.