Emergency response from the Netherlands gives victims a lifeline

Disasters, major accidents: you often hear about them in the news. But what’s less well known is that when large numbers of Dutch people are caught up in a catastrophe an emergency response team races to the scene of the disaster. They know exactly what’s medically, practically and logistically possible in every country, and they make sure the victims aren’t left to cope alone. SOS International is one of the emergency centres that takes it in turn to respond to major emergencies. During its year in this emergency coordination role, aid workers from SOS International travelled to Mexico, Portugal and Nepal A report on their experiences…

Medical emergency in Mexico

In November 2015 a bus carrying tourists collided with a lorry in Tuxtla, Mexico. There were 17 Dutch people and 4 Belgians on board. When news of the disaster began to reach SOS International in the middle of the night it was reported that three people had been injured, one or two of them seriously. Only limited information was available, and in view of the long travelling time to the location rapid action was called for. Zamirah van Zijll was one of the emergency response team: “We left that same day with a four-man team: a trauma psychologist, two critical care nurses and myself as an emergency response worker. Once we’d arrived in Mexico we discovered that five Dutch people had in fact been admitted to hospital with serious injuries. One group of casualties was able to return to the Netherlands relatively quickly, and seven others decided to continue their vacation soon afterwards with a replacement tour guide. The remaining ten casualties were badly in need of SOS International’s help. One patient’s condition worsened during her repatriation to the Netherlands. She began to suffer organ failure during a specially arranged ambulance flight to Mexico City. After consulting with our medical specialist in the Netherlands we decided not to follow the Mexican doctor’s advice to allow her to return to the Netherlands on the next flight. And that later turned out to be the right decision, because a more thorough examination revealed a thrombosis. At times like these you have enormous value as an emergency response team. You have medical expertise, you speak the local language and you can consult with specialists in the Netherlands. So all in all we could organise the best possible care for the victims.”

Bringing order to the chaos after an earthquake

25 April 2015: Nepal was struck by a powerful earthquake. There was enormous devastation, especially in the capital, Kathmandu. Natasja De Miranda Serra was working in the emergency centre when the chaos broke out. “There were a lot of Dutch people in Nepal at the time of the earthquake, and the phones were ringing off the hook. In no time at all we were dealing with 600 cases. In cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs we chartered two extra flights to evacuate people from the affected area. Then we travelled to Kathmandu with a six-man emergency response team to coordinate the repatriation. It was an incredibly chaotic journey, with the plans seeming to change all the time, and the chaos didn’t grow any less once we arrived in the capital. We immediately liaised with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: who were the Dutch citizens in Nepal, and where were they? Then you try to bring some order to the situation: gathering together everyone who wanted to leave Nepal at Kathmandu airport, drawing up passenger lists for the flights we’d arranged, getting people on board European military flights. We’d set up a kind of stall at the airport for this purpose, complete with a Dutch flag and aid workers in orange T-shirts. Travellers who encountered us there were sometimes moved to tears, they were so relieved that help was available for them. It continued to be a question of improvisation until, on 5 May, we’d got the last people back to the Netherlands. The reunion of the travellers with their families and friends at Rotterdam Airport was so moving… I’ll never forget those scenes.”

A ray of light for the victims in Portugal

On 17 June 2015 a transfer bus was on its way from Faro Airport to Armação de Pera to bring a group of 34 Dutch holidaymakers to their hotel when, at around 11 PM, it came off the road, ending up on its side metres down the embankment. Three passengers were killed outright, and many others were injured. At 4 o’clock that night Ruud Kuijpers’ telephone rang, with the urgent message that he had to travel to the scene of the accident with an emergency response team. Together with two doctors, nurses, a trauma psychologist and a funeral director, he left for Portugal that same morning. “The TUI travel agency was already working flat out to organise a hotel, return personal possessions to their rightful owners and maintain contacts with the police. As an emergency response worker you have to make time for people when you get to the hotel where they’re being housed. Many of them are in panic, traumatised, worried about others, thankful that they’re still alive. You’re caught up in an emotional rollercoaster. You offer a listening ear, let them know you’re there for them and explain what you’ve come to do. That gives people a lifeline. The next day, all the members of the emergency response team swung into action: the doctor and the nurses visited the injured in hospitals in Faro and Portimão, the funeral director held meetings with surviving relatives. And family members of the victims soon began to arrive. You also want to care for them as well as possible, together with the trauma psychologist. By the end of the day we had a good idea of everyone’s condition, and who could travel and who could not. Because the victims - apart from what turned out to be four fatalities - only had minor injuries, we could already organise the return of a large group of the tourists to the Netherlands on the third day after the accident. It was a hectic and intense aid operation, especially because of the fatal casualties. But I still look back on it with a good feeling: we worked well with a fine, experienced emergency response team, and none of the survivors were left with permanent injuries as a result of the accident. That’s a comforting thought, even though the survivors’ psychological scars may take a long time to heal.”