By Madeleine Berger
Turkey’s devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake in February, with a death toll of more than 50,000, left many individuals trapped under collapsed buildings and debris.
A group of local search and rescue volunteers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department knew they wanted to help.
La Crescenta resident Mike Leum, a Montrose Search and Rescue team volunteer for 30 years and current LASD assistant director, initiated the mission. Upon learning about the quake, he immediately called six trusted search and rescue colleagues and began planning their expedition to Turkey.
“I felt the need to go there and try and do whatever I could. … I picked these six people because I know each of them extremely well — some of them for decades,” Leum said. “I would trust them with my life without hesitation.”
The six eagerly agreed, forming a team of Leum, Cindy Moyneur England, Glendale resident Collin Lievense, Robert Sheedy, La Crescenta resident Marcos Rubio, Brad Lyon and LASD retired Sgt. Joe Larios.
“We got the skill. We got the will. Let’s go and do some good things,” Sheedy said, reflecting on the decision to commit to Leum’s idea.
Moyneur England expressed a similar sentiment: “It’s part of our DNA to go out and help people.”
Through his connections to the United Parcel Service, Leum secured seven free roundtrip airline tickets to Turkey, as well as hotel accommodations through private donations. He then corresponded with the Turkish Consul General to inform the government of the team’s arrival and checked in with Turkey’s equivalent of FEMA in order to receive instructions on daily missions. What originated as a private citizen effort transformed into LASD’s first official search and rescue deployment outside the United States.
Leum said there were no logistical setbacks. “When you’re willing to undergo a humongous humanitarian effort, people seem to want to help you accomplish it,” he said.
After a 16-hour travel day, the team arrived in Turkey. Each morning, they would travel upward of two hours from their hotel in Adana to their assigned work area in southeastern Turkey, and work for more than 12 hours each day. These long days proved to be largely successful, resulting in rescuing three individuals.
After they first heard reports of sounds, they plowed through debris and rubble in search of a victim. Sheedy described the process as “working in confined spaces, drilling through floors, hauling the debris out, cutting rebar, using a jackhammer — whatever was available to us,” he said.
Eventually, they successfully uncovered a 52-year-old mother and her 18-year-old son. A few days later, they rescued a 17-year-old boy from beneath the rubble. It’s seemingly a miracle that these three people survived a week with no food or water in the freezing temperatures, and that the LASD volunteers were able to recover them.
The Turkish natives were endlessly supportive of the LASD, in addition to teams from Spain, South Korea, Argentina, France and other countries. Sheedy remembers “huge global representation” that was able to transcend language barriers. “We didn’t have a common language, but we had a common cause,” he said.
Sheedy reflected on his interactions with the people of Turkey: “We were all humbled by their generosity. They had lost everything, and they were sharing what they had with us.”
Although a positive experience overall, this was not a mission without risks. While working, the team relied on a Turkish structural engineer to navigate the toppled buildings amid ongoing aftershocks. While at home base, there were safety concerns regarding the significant ISIS presence in Adana, with its proximity to the Syrian border — in fact, Leum remembers that Israeli and German search and rescue teams pulled out of the area because of this concern.
These LASD volunteers were able to stay strong, as they are no strangers to dangerous situations. Moyneur England first became an SAR volunteer after being rescued herself from a freak snowstorm on Mount Baldy in 1991, and Leum is a member of Team Rubicon, volunteering in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Ian, as well as a member of Third Wave Volunteers, for which he deployed to war torn Ukraine last year.
“Trauma is part of the deal. It’s not something new to us. But the scale and the enormity of this was pretty overwhelming,” Leum said.
Moyneur England recalls the “open trucks with stacked body bags driving through the street” and the “big earth movers sifting sand just gently trying to remove rubble to see if they could detect a body.”
Leum remembers having difficulty sleeping upon returning home to Montrose, only getting four hours of sleep and then replaying his memories from Turkey — “some of it’s uplifting, some of it’s not,” he said.
Memories from this trip will remain with the seven local residents forever, and they are all grateful for this impactful opportunity.
“This is what we live for. This is what we’re trained for. We’re a specialized unit within the Sheriff’s department, so it was an honor and a privilege to be able to do what we did and make a difference,” Sheedy said.
First published in the April 8 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.