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In Turkey, a U.S. rescue team helps recover the dead while respecting local customs

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Nations from around the world are rushing aid to Turkey and Syria as they attempt to deal with the massive quakes that hit on Monday. The U.S. is also sending supplies and relief workers. NPR's Jason Beaubien spent the day in the city of Adiyaman with an urban search-and-rescue team from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The U.S. search-and-rescue teams have just one goal - to find people alive.

JOHN MORRISON: We are here to effect the rescues of those deeply entombed in, you know, reinforced concrete structures.

BEAUBIEN: John Morrison is a spokesperson for USAID's urban search-and-rescue team. They arrived on a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane, with sophisticated listening devices, specialized cameras, concrete-cutting equipment and highly trained dogs.

PAUL CIRZEN: This is Vader. He's a 6-year-old black lab.

BEAUBIEN: Paul Cirzen (ph) is one of the canine search-and-rescue specialists on the team.

CIRZEN: Everybody gives off scent, no matter if you just came out of the shower or you haven't showered in days. We give off scent from our decomposing cells in our body. We train those dogs to find that concentrated scent.

BEAUBIEN: With thousands of people still missing, the search dogs can answer the burning question - where in the vast fields of rubble might there still be people alive?

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY RUNNING)

BEAUBIEN: When one of the USAID teams arrives in the center of the city of Adiyaman, residents are digging into debris piles, some with backhoes, some just with shovels. The American team, led by Marc Campe (ph), is mobbed by people who want the dog to search various collapsed buildings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Here, here, here.

MARC CAMPE: Right now, I have a target that I need to go look at and I need to investigate.

BEAUBIEN: Campe is team take the black lab, named Peter Pan, to a massive gray pile of concrete and twisted steel rebar. Locals say three people were found alive there earlier in the day. Peter Pan scrambles over the pile, sniffing along the surface.

CAMPE: He is working on, potentially, where the smell is coming from. So you'll see that he's going back and forth. And his search pattern is getting tighter and tighter as it gets closer to the pile.

BEAUBIEN: Campe is coordinating the various members of the USAID team. Search dogs try, he says, to hone in on specific smells.

CAMPE: They do also what's called scent elimination. So if anybody out here has already been anywhere close to the pile, then they'll do a mental note that that person is not what I'm looking for. That person is out here with me.

BEAUBIEN: At this site, groups of local residents are working to pull bodies out of the flattened apartments. They zip them into black bags and load them into the back of a small, white pickup truck. The scene is chaotic. Everyone wants Campe and the USAID team's attention.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's for journalists only.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There are voice there.

CAMPE: There's a voice there?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

CAMPE: There's a voice on side Charlie that they're saying they're hearing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Where?

CAMPE: Side Charlie low.

BEAUBIEN: They head over to set up sophisticated listening devices that can detect even faint tapping from anyone inside.

CAMPE: All right. We'll meet you on the other side.

BEAUBIEN: Campe orders everyone to be quiet.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

CAMPE: Search-and-rescue team. If you can hear me, tap three times.

BEAUBIEN: A crowd has gathered, Turkish men bundled against the cold, crouched down. Everyone is focused on the American with the big headphones, hoping for a sign that he's getting some signal. But there's nothing. No tapping, no voices. It seems to be just another disappointing lead.

CAMPE: We'll run the dog...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: OK.

CAMPE: ...Just to make sure.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: All right.

CAMPE: Hey, Tom, do you have eyes on Matt?

BEAUBIEN: Campe calls in Peter Pan and his handler, just to check further.

CAMPE: Are you comfortable with sending Peter Pan in that way?

MATT: We'll see...

CAMPE: OK.

BEAUBIEN: The dog scurries down into a hole but soon emerges. Once again, he doesn't appear to be picking up signs of anyone alive. Then all of a sudden...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

BEAUBIEN: ...The dog has detected something. At first, everyone except Peter Pan stops. Then the operation shifts.

CAMPE: So with the alert from Peter Pan, we're going to elevate this one level and call this a worksite, which means we're going to start working to possibly access any victims that may still be inside.

BEAUBIEN: The USAID team tapes the area off and calls in other team members who specialize in digging into voids that may have been left behind as the building collapsed. Peter Pan then barks at another crevice close to the first one. Campe says this is a strong indication that someone is or was recently alive in that spot.

CAMPE: He can discern between human remains and live victims. And he himself corroborated what he was alerting to on the other side by coming here and alerting similarly.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: So it's a pretty strong signal from him that there's somebody alive in there.

CAMPE: I'm confident with two different points. I would say it's a strong signal.

BEAUBIEN: It's been 4 1/2 days since the first powerful quake hit on Monday. The temperatures have been dropping below freezing at night. Many residents say that they've given up hope of finding anyone else alive. But members of the USAID search team say that in other quakes, people have been pulled out of the rubble more than a week after the disaster struck. Soon after Peter Pan barked that he'd found something, a team of Turkish miners digging on the opposite side of the debris field announced that they've made contact with a woman and a child trapped at their site.

LEILA YILMAZ: (Through interpreter) It's a miracle, just a miracle.

BEAUBIEN: Leila Yilmaz (ph), who used to live in the building, is watching the Turkish miners work. The 38-year-old says she's overjoyed that one of her neighbors is alive inside the massive pile of debris.

YILMAZ: (Through interpreter) God blessed her. And currently, she's waiting.

BEAUBIEN: It's getting dark, and the teams at both sites set up construction lights to continue working. The USAID team brings the Turkish miners some specialized digging tools and sends over an American medical team. Both teams work deep into the night. Close to midnight, the Turks managed to get the woman and one of her children out alive. The USAID team searched extensively where Peter Pan had barked, but in the end, the American team only found human remains. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Adiyaman, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.