Malaga. María García, 44, suggested meeting in a café on the technology park for this interview. Outside, it was starting to rain and the storm, which everyone thought would be over by then, was still going on. María, a firefighter and member of the charity Bomberos Sin Fronteras had just come back from Turkey. Sometimes she took her time before answering, reliving her experiences in the town of Maraş, one of those most affected by the earthquake. Some images will stay in her head forever, she said, and «it makes me very uncomfortable when people call me a hero».
–You have just come back from Turkey. What did you see there?
–A lot of pain and suffering. What we saw was a major catastrophe. Because of the dense population, this earthquake caused terrible damage. To see so many buildings, with so many people inside, was just devastating.
–What is it inside you that makes you decide to pack a rucksack and head for the epicentre of one of the biggest disasters in recent history?
–Being a firefighter is a vocation. What goes through your head is the following: if this is my profession and I have the knowledge, how could I not go and help a population which is having such a terrible time? What sort of person would I be if I didn't go? We live in a society, don't we? So it is only logical that you contribute whatever you can when something like this happens.
–Did it redefine the word devastation for you?
–The word devastation was what I saw in people's faces, in the Turkish people. Obviously you see the material devastation, but true devastation is what you see in their faces. That is where you see the real tragedy.
–Were you afraid?
–Of course. You would be irresponsible not to feel fear.
–How do you handle that?
–You think about your professional competence. You know how to do your job because that's what you trained for. Then you have to consider the risks, what might happen, and weigh those up. In the end, it's something personal; it's different for everybody. We always go in two by two, in pairs, so that if there is an aftershock not all the team will be affected. Going back to the subject of fear... fear isn't a bad thing, you know; it's useful. You overcome it because you know how to deal with it.
–Did being a woman make any difference to anything?
–I'm just one of the team, like all the others. Physically, it can make a difference sometimes. You can get into places that others can't. And, depending on the culture in the country you are going to, it may be that women feel more comfortable if they are helped by another woman.
–What were the conditions like, that you and your colleagues had to work in?
–Very hard. For the first three days, we had practically no sleep. You know that the chances of people surviving reduce as time passes, so you don't rest. And you eat when you can. The local people were fantastic to us in that way. Then, the temperature at night drops so low, 10C or 15C below zero. That was terrible. We made bonfires with the rubbish from the buildings.
–Didn't your body plead with you to stop sometimes?
–The mind is infinitely stronger than the body. Our last intervention, which meant we missed our flight back, lasted for 38 consecutive hours. When I got home, I thought I would just sit down on the sofa for five minutes and woke up 15 hours later.
–How many people were you able to rescue alive?
–Four. And we located a fifth person, who was then rescued by an Italian team.
–Those too. What happens is that at times like that, they are not the priority. The bodies can be recovered later.
–Is the body of someone who is dead treated less delicately in order to speed up the rescue work?
–No, we professionals know that is not the case. From my point of view, they deserve the same respect as someone who is alive.
–How do you deal with all this mentally?
–It's very hard. Everything is so catastrophic and you know it is affecting you. If it didn't affect me, I would be a psychopath. I remember that the first child we brought out was 12 years old. But his family didn't survive. His little brothers had died, and so had his father and mother. Then, two days later I found out from the local authorities that that little boy had another brother as well, and he was brought out alive. That was very comforting to know.
–What image persists for you?
–That boy's face, the fear on his face. I have children too, you know. I felt for him, so much.
–What was the greatest moment of happiness?
–It was the four people we managed to rescue. You can see they are in shock when you bring them out, because everyone was in shock. But you know you have given them another chance. That is very gratifying.
–Did you cry?
–Of course I cried. How could I not have done? You cry for those you bring out alive and you cry for those you haven't been able to reach.
–What does a disaster of this type sound like?
–But isn't there a lot of noise? Surely with the drills, the rubble, the heavy machinery?
–The noise goes on all the time, the sound of the machinery is constant. But for me everything begins when someone asks for silence in order to listen for a victim beneath the rubble, and then absolutely everyone falls silent at once.
–How does a body react when it is buried alive?
–I'm not really sure what the mechanism is, but I can tell you that the victims that we brought out, in the first days, were very disorientated. They didn't respond to anything. I believe the body goes into a type of lethargy.
–And what does a disaster like this one in Turkey smell like?
–Death, and petrol.
–Does it make you uncomfortable when people thank you?
–Sometimes it does, yes. And when they say I'm a hero, as well. In fact, it makes me really uncomfortable if someone calls me a hero. If I consider it a bit more deeply, I guess there is also something egotistical about my thinking, because I really like being able to help.
–Is it OK if we end this interview by saying thank you?
–Yes, that isn't a problem.
–Thank you, too.
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