Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rescuers Follow in Tragedy's Footsteps

The past four weeks have been unusually tough for rescuer Alexei Kiyashko and his colleagues working for Tsentrospas, the central airborne detachment of the Emergency Situations Ministry.

When a powerful earthquake struck northeast Turkey on Aug. 17, Kiyashko and 41 of his colleagues were flown to the site to contribute to the relief efforts. Shortly after returning from the exhausting six-day operation, Kiyashko, the head of the rescue unit, had to quickly prepare a team of five rescue workers to send to Athens to clear the rubble after another strong quake.

In September, the Tsentrospas rescue unit went to work yet again - when two Moscow apartment buildings were blown apart by powerful explosions in the south of the city.

On Thursday, when a truck bomb killed 17 people in the southern Russian town of Volgodonsk, the Tsentrospas unit was back on alert, until a last-minute decision came allowing them to stay.

The rescuers themselves admit it was the Moscow efforts that proved particularly difficult. Although their work in Turkey was more physically demanding and exhausting, emotionally it was easier to bear, Kiyashko said. The Russian rescue team pulled a total of 72 survivors from under the ruins caused by the earthquake.

In Moscow, however, the impact of the two explosions was so devastating - killing more than 200 people - that the team's work was reduced primarily to pulling dead bodies out of the rubble.

"It was obvious that we wouldn't find anyone alive," said Kiyashko, recalling the first hours of the rescue operation on Ulitsa Guryanova, where an explosion on the night of Sept. 8 left 94 dead.

"As a former firefighter, I can say that when the fire starts in the rubble, it's extremely hard to put it out without clearing the rubble first," he said, sitting in a dormitory room at the Tsentrospas headquarters, located in the former fire station in the town of Zhukovsky, 35 kilometers east of Moscow.

The Tsentrospas unit includes 75 personnel - rescue workers, engineers, drivers and doctors - as well as 13 dogs trained to search out humans. All work in regular shifts, except for Kiyashko, who is available around the clock, according to need.

Kiyashko arrived at the Guryanova site an hour and a half after the blast. He didn't leave until the end of the relief effort's second day.

Alexander Nikolsky, who is also the unit's canine expert, was among the first rescuers to arrive at the scene.

"We released a dog at Guryanova, but he didn't find anyone alive," Nikolsky said. "All I could do afterwards was help the others pull out corpses."

The blast scene on Kashirskoye Shosse was similarly hopeless. The explosion was strong enough to reduce the building to tiny fragments, leaving almost no pockets of empty space where survivors could be found.

During the first hours of both operations, rescuers stopped almost hourly for moments of silence - stopping work and turning off the engines of cranes and bulldozers - to listen for signs of life. But there were no replies.

"Of course, knowing that you are finding someone still alive helps a lot. Our first priority is getting to people who might be alive under the rubble," Kiyashko said. "But if there are none, what about their relatives? They want to get at least the remains of their loved ones, and someone has to do it for them."

The 34-year-old Kiyashko, who has been participating in rescue operations for 17 years, said most rescuers after such operations generally keep their emotions to themselves - and he is no exception.

"It's just a type of defense, a block to protect the mind. It's necessary, because if you take every death to heart, you would end up in a psychiatric clinic in no time," he said. "My nerves aren't made of steel."

The most disheartening work, Kiyashko said, comes when relatives of people buried under the rubble approach the searchers.

"Nothing can be worse than that. It's better not to let them come close," he said. "People do exchange emotions. Rescuers receive strong emotional tension from the relatives."

Emotional breakdowns occur among the searchers also.

"Usually, I somehow manage to cope with it," said Alexei Farenkov, the unit's doctor, who was near the rescuers during the Guryanova operation.

"But when this 3-year-old boy was found ... we put him on the stretchers, right next to his mom and dad," Farenkov paused. "When it was over and I came home, I realized I really needed a drink."

"It's better not to think that the dead person you've found was just recently alive and healthy, had a family. It would just be too hard then," said rescuer Igor Kiselyov, who has been working at Tsentrospas since 1992.

The most important thing for the rescue worker is to figure out what is worth risking your life for and what is not, Kiyashko said.

"If you risk your life pulling out a dead body you are insane, but if you do it to save a life and succeed you are simply professional," he said.