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Local man returns from Turkey mission

August 25, 1999

Rescue missionBy LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer




FAIRPLAY - When Randy Leatherman heard the three distinct knocks in the pile of rubble that was once a house, he got cold chills.

After six hours of searching in earthquake-ravaged Izmit, Turkey, his crew had finally found someone to rescue.

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It took another six hours for Leatherman and other members of the Fairfax, Va., Urban Search and Rescue Team to carefully dig out the woman without causing the building to collapse on top of her.

Leatherman, 38, of Fairplay, used high-powered listening equipment designed to amplify her tapping sounds.

An interpreter asked her questions and instructed her to answer with a series of taps. They found out she wasn't seriously hurt and tried to get some indication of her location.

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Leatherman switched hats and became a laborer, shoring up the structure so it wouldn't further collapse while the crew used jackhammers and cutters to make their way through the rubble.

He asked the Turkish people for some lumber, which they provided.

During the week-long mission, Leatherman took part in three of the four rescues made by his 70-member search and rescue team.

The team is specially trained for international disasters such as the one that killed an estimated 45,000 in Turkey.

Sleep was not a priority when people's loved ones were missing.

The team's second rescue was a woman in her mid-40s who was entombed in the center of a four-story building.

While he was working on that rescue, other members of his team found a 7- or 8-year-old boy alive in his bed, protected by the safety rail meant to keep him from rolling onto the floor while he slept.

The team's final rescue was a mentally retarded man of about 50 who didn't want to come out of the rubble. His friend had died next to him.

Leatherman was physically exhausted, but the toughest part was yet to come.

The search dogs would "hit" and Leatherman would set up his listening device.

Surrounded by the din of sirens, traffic, machinery and people crying, Leatherman would have to determine if the sounds he heard were cries for help or simply a false alarm.

"We dug like animals and found absolutely nothing," he said.

Leatherman began to doubt his ability.

"You just never are 100 percent sure. You wonder. Did we miss someone? It's scary. It really is," he said.

It was that uncertainty that Leatherman was thinking about when he returned home. When he saw his wife, Barb, he just let her hug him while he cried.

"It felt so good to see my wife and kids," he said.

The call to leave came on Aug. 17, hours after the quake hit. It was almost exactly one year after Leatherman returned from Nairobi, Kenya, where his team searched in vain for survivors of the U.S. Embassy bombing.

Leatherman returned from Turkey on Tuesday night and will have a few days off to enjoy the simple things like playing with his two sons and his yellow Lab, Sugar.

Seeing the poverty of Turkey has given him a new appreciation for his life here, he said.

Wednesday morning he traveled to the Washington, D.C., studios of MSNBC for a live interview about the rescue effort.

Leatherman grew up in Sharpsburg, where he joined the volunteer fire company as a teenager. He worked for the Hagerstown City Fire Department from 1982 to 1985, when he left to work in Fairfax.

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