On 6 February 2023, at 4.17 a.m. local time, Türkiye and Syria were hit by an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale. As of 26 February 2023, over 51 100 deaths had been confirmed, with more than 44 300 in Türkiye and more than 6700 in Syria. The devastation generated a wave of solidarity across the world, bringing a range of aid and support to help overwhelmed rescue teams on site.
One of our CERN colleagues joined the effort: Marc Nas, Operations Officer and Deputy Group Leader of the CERN Fire and Rescue Service. Since 2015, Marc has been involved in the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism. This mechanism was established by the European Commission in 2001 to strengthen cooperation between countries in order to improve prevention, preparedness and response to disasters.
The mechanism was immediately triggered in the wake of the earthquake, and Marc was selected as Deputy Team Leader for the EU Civil Protection team. We caught up with him just after his return from a three-week mission to coordinate the EU’s emergency response with the Turkish government.
How did you come to be a part of this mission?
My background is in urban search and rescue (USAR), disaster response, crisis team management and civil–military cooperation. From 2003 to 2017, I was Chief of Staff of the Netherlands Urban Search and Rescue Team. In this role I participated in several international exercises with the UN and the EU, taking part in emergency responses to earthquakes in Morocco, Haiti and Nepal. I joined the EU Civil Protection Mechanism in 2015 as a team leader, following the regular training courses and exercises in order to be ready and immediately operational in the event of a new emergency situation. When the earthquakes hit Türkiye and a call was put out for volunteers, I didn’t hesitate. My CERN hierarchy supported me in taking up this challenge and I’m very grateful that they did.
Can you tell us what you found on arrival and what were the first actions that you had to take?
I arrived two weeks after the earthquake had struck. I was based in Gaziantep, leading an EU team of 12 people working alongside UN colleagues in an affected area three times the size of the Netherlands: from Malatya to Hatay and from Adiyaman to Adana. This was on a scale I had never experienced before. The effort needed was huge! Interestingly, there was relatively little visible damage in Gaziantep itself when I arrived. However, as soon as I drove a few hours out, north-east or south-west, the level of destruction I witnessed was enormous, affecting big cities.
What was the profile of the team you had to lead?
Our team spanned nine nationalities and comprised experts in various domains, such as medical support, logistics, safety and security, and information management. I had a one-day handover with the “Alpha team” whom we took over from. We immediately got to work alongside the other humanitarian agencies, UN organisations and local authorities to bring what help we could to support the effort. I had to work closely with my UN counterpart, who also happened to be Dutch and living in the Pays de Gex, so we made a strong connection immediately.
What was it like working in such a difficult context?
I had to facilitate the coordination of incoming assistance from EU Member States and other countries participating in the mechanism. We also supported the national authorities, liaising with UN colleagues in assessing and monitoring the situation and identifying where assistance was most urgently needed. The work was made more difficult by the aftershocks and the storms, which brought flooding to already devastated areas. What also struck me was the strong presence of so many different countries: field hospitals set up by Belgium, France, Italy and Spain, ships coming in from Italy and planes from all over Europe and the rest of the world. And this from agencies that are already stretched with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and other emergencies!
What do you take away from this unique experience?
I am very grateful that CERN supported my participation with such flexibility. I return with so many experiences, images, memories, connections and learnings. I have witnessed first-hand the commitment and solidarity of the international world in the Türkiye response. I received very positive feedback from EU and UN colleagues about my work style and personal approach, which people described as relaxed, friendly and professional. This approach helped me build a rapport and connection with colleagues, locals and affected populations. Seeing the NGOs at work was fascinating, and the international scale of the response impressive, with for instance a field hospital set up by Turkmenistan, ships coming from Egypt and flights from Indonesia. The entire world was joining forces.
I’ve always enjoyed running operations and, with this experience, I’m ready to take it one step further: I now feel able to take up a role as team leader of a “first team” in future responses.
Interview by the HSE unit