Daily Record Article: Scots firefighter leads team back to Nepal to help quake victims

Wed 25, Nov, 2015

Firefighter John Aitchison – member of UKISAR and Operation Florian – is interviewed by the Daily Record about his work in Nepal and plans to return with a Florian team in 2016. 

By Brendan McGinty, Daily Record 

FIREFIGHTER John Aitchison tells of the devastation he witnessed on a life-changing relief effort in Nepal’s worst-affected villages and towns.

It was nothing out of the ordinary when firefighter John Aitchison’s pager bleeped on a damp spring morning in April. But the emergency he was being called to attend changed his life. 

As a dedicated member of UKISAR, the British Government’s international search and rescue team, John has travelled the world dealing with the destruction caused by natural disasters and wars. By his own admission, though, nothing had prepared him for Nepal. Within 24 hours of his pager call, he was facing piles of dead bodies, thousands of critically injured, walking wounded and broken, bereaved families.

Devastation in Nepal

Thousands were already dead and hundreds were missing, while structural damage, aftershocks and the sheer chaos of the relief effort threatened further major loss of life. John, 38, travelled to some of the worst-affected villages and towns in the most remote parts of the mountainous South Asian country, where up to 80 per cent of buildings had been destroyed. He slept among the dead and the dying amid aftershocks that killed and injured hundreds more.

But after the relief of returning home to Gourdon, Kincardineshire, John vowed to go back. And early next year, he will take a specially selected group of firefighters to Nepal as part of the continuing effort to rebuild a broken country. John will lead a team for Operation Florian, a charity who offer help in international disaster zones using British fire engines, personnel and expertise.

He said: “I’ve seen the way wars and natural disasters affect many places in the world and dealt with difficult incidents at home. “This was different, though. It changed me forever.

“When I joined up with the team, we encountered what I’d describe as a humanitarian disaster on a biblical scale.

“The only real comparison or frame of reference I have are pictures or descriptions of the carnage in World War I.”

The earthquake, which struck on April 25, killed 9000 people and injured a further 25,000.

It also triggered an avalanche on Nepal’s crowning glory Mount Everest, causing the largest single loss of life in the recorded history of the world’s highest peak. John and his UKISAR colleagues worked alongside the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles and international aid agencies.

One of the first tasks his team faced was to reopen the national medical college in Jorpati, near the capital Kathmandu. The quake had dislodged a 12-ton concrete clock tower and left it hanging over the 800-bed hospital’s A&E department. Badly injured victims couldn’t be treated until it was made safe, seriously hampering the relief effort.

L-R: Steve Nicol, John Aitchison, Martyn Ferguson and Martin Vardy who are part of the Scottish first response 

John said: “The tower was hanging right over the operating theatres and people were scared to go in there.

“Patients were being treated in a damp basement instead.

“The team managed to make the clock tower safe and tie it down. It was a huge effort but it saved the entire medical centre and was hugely important in terms of the aid operation.

“It saved thousands of lives.”

John was then tasked with going to the villages of Ghorthali and Bahrabise and the surrounding areas in central Nepal.

He said: “Some of the places we visited had been 80 per cent destroyed.

“It didn’t always equate to 80 per cent of the people dying, because many of them were out in the crop fields working at the time.

“But there were lots of people who had died or were trapped and many walking wounded.

“Someone pointed to a scar on the landscape and said that is where their village used to be.

“The injuries were similar to what I would deal with in a bad road accident. But whereas in Scotland the victim would be being treated in a hospital within five minutes, here they were in tents.

“The buildings weren’t safe, so everyone would spend the nights outside. Sleep wasn’t possible because of the number of aftershocks.

“To be lying there among seriously injured people and people dying in tents affects you right to your bone.

“The smell – the stench of death – is something I will never forget.

“But the people had an amazing attitude. They never sought to blame anyone or anything.

“Their approach was that ­something bad had happened and they wanted to start fixing it.

“There was no self-pity, no fighting, no looting. Everyone wanted to help us.”

The precarious nature of the relief operation John was involved in was illustrated by the crash of a US military helicopter that was distributing aid to the villages where he was based. The tragic accident close to Ghorthali claimed the lives of Captain Chris Norgren, five other American soldiers and two Nepalese troops.

John returned to his day job as a crew manager for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in May. But he will go back to Nepal before the first anniversary of the quake through his work with Operation Florian. The humanitarian charity deliver aid globally, using reconditioned, out-of-use fire and rescue vehicles. They have supported projects in the Balkans, Cape Verde, Ecuador and Moldova.

John said: “Florian will deliver the basics such as clean water, filtration facilities, structural help and advice. We also provide training for rescue services on the ground.

“As the charity’s Scottish lead, I will put together a team to return to Nepal. And I am so delighted to have that opportunity.

“On a personal level, it will give me the chance to have some kind of psychological closure, which I will be grateful for.

“But on a bigger level, it will be the chance to give something back to people whose attitude when faced with that kind of adversity I found quite inspiring.

“Nepal is one of those countries which has never done any harm to another nation. I couldn’t quite live with the idea that I would never see them again.”

Donate at www.operation florian.com or on their Virgin Money Giving page.

The original article can be viewed here: www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/scots-firefighter-leads-team-back-6877304