Gavin Weightman

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0 The Call for Silence

  • Thoughts
  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 21-03-2011
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The stories of the discovery of survivors in the rubble nine days after the tsunami bulldozed whole townships in Japan are a reminder to all rescue teams that, even when hope is fading, they should remain alert to the slightest signs of life. This was a lesson learned in London during the Blitz when after every air raid there were people trapped alive in bombed out buildings. Finding and excavating survivors after a raid fell to the Heavy Rescue teams composed chiefly of men too old to fight but with knowledge of the building trades and still vigorous enough to pick their way through rubble. They had nothing in the way of sophisticated search equipment but evolved a way of working which is still of value.

Firstly, they tried not to disturb the flimsy structures of collapsed buildings by trampling over them. They moved very cautiously using a kind of careful "pick-a-stick" approach. And then, at regular intervals, there would be a call for silence, an appeal would be made to anyone trapped to make themselves heard, and everyone would listen intently. When a voice was heard the task of excavation could take many hours as the rescuers worked their way through the mass of bricks and timber. Sometimes miners put in a form of pit prop to burrow into the rubble.

There were some truly astonishing stories of survival, including two I came across while researching my book Rescue. Writing just after the end of the war a doctor recalled in the British Medical Journal the gruesome discovery of the dead and the living in the ruins of a row of houses which had cellars used as shelters during air raids. The bomb had dropped at 1 am on a Thursday morning (the report does not say which month or year) and it was known that there families asleep in the house. An elderly lady was found alive at 6pm on the Friday but she died of her injuries. The Rescue team went on searching, calling for silence, and at 7pm on the Sunday there heard a voice deep in the rubble. The doctor was sent for. "On arrival made contact with the trapped girl, one of my own patients, Miss F.B. aged twenty-one, whose voice could faintly be heard, obviously at some distance below the surface. She told me her name, that she knew her father and mother were dead, and that she was quite immobile except for a little movement of the left hand. It was completely astonishing to find her completely intelligent, and throughout the six hours before she was finally removed at 1am on Monday–exactly 96 hours from the time she was first trapped–she retained her intelligence and was of great help in guiding the rescue squad in their difficult task."

As bits and pieces of debris were removed the doctor was able to feed the woman water through a tube and later some tea and a " third of a grain of morphine". They discovered that she was face down in a crouching position and that her dead father was lying across her back. To get her out they had to burrow in sideways and ease away her father's corpse. She made a full recovery and told them that her father had survived for two days and they could both hear the rescue workers above them. But there was too great a thickness of rubble for their cries of help to be heard. It was only when some layers had been removed that they could respond to the call for silence. As the woman was being finally released she told them they had heard a woman calling out next door and she believed she was still alive.

When the rescue team began to search for this other survivor they soon made contact. She said she was walking about in the cellar with her baby, which was not very well, but that she had some bottles of milk. When they finally found her they discovered that her baby was dead and she was completely trapped on a staircase but in her delirium imagined she was free and her child alive. The woman was 34 years old her son, clutched in her arms, just three. When she recovered she thought the boy had lived for two days. She too could hear the rescuers but they could not hear her.

Though new listening devices have become available, as well as sniffer dogs and infra-red cameras which pick up body heat, the surest way of looking survivors is still the call for silence. During the blitz the heavy rescue squads developed a great many techniques for tunnelling in to rubble and these were passed on to Civil Defence units after the war when Britain began to make plans to withstand a nuclear attack. Those Civil Defence manuals were still in use around the world when my Rescue book was published in 1996 and I expect they still are today. I would imagine some of the lessons learned in the Blitz are being put into practice in Japan today as the search goes on for survivors.