Colombia January 1999


25 miles (40 km) WSW of Ibague, Colombia

Magnitude & Depth

6.2M & 17.0 kilometres

Team Deployment

10 member rescue team

The following is taken from Keith Underwood’s (the IRC Team Leader) personal log. It gives an indication of the pace at which things can move if properly co-ordinated. Most of this took place over just four days.

Tuesday 26th January 1999

I was phoned on the evening of the 26th Jan and told about an Earthquake in Colombia.  I was asked at that time if I was available.  The answer was yes.   Together with another member of the Operational Committee, we pick a team of ten.

I set off from Scarborough, picked up Ray Gray and then Glen Lloyd.  I had already stated that I would go straight to Gatwick, as I did not think I had enough time to get to Glory Mill [IRC Operational Headquarters] and then to Gatwick.

Wednesday 27th January 1999

07:15 – All tickets picked up at the BA Stand.
10:15 – We have just boarded the aircraft.

18:42 – Landed at Bogota Airport. Got off aircraft and welcomed by British Embassy.

19:10 – We were informed that a representative of the Embassy would meet us at Armenia airport.  We will be flying out by military aircraft; all arrangements have been made.  Given a mobile phone with numbers programmed for useful embassy staff and others.

21:00 – Leaving Bogota airport with 8 team members and some equipment.  Brian, John and the rest of the equipment will be following on another aircraft in approximately 2 hours.  The Team aircraft also has the BBC news crew on it.  All members of the Team are working well, and the co-ordination at this end is very good.  We will be working alongside another British team (RAPID) who have two dogs with them.

21:20 – Still waiting.  The aircraft we are on needed re-fuelling before setting off.  Both aircraft will probably get to Armenia at the same time.

We eventually set off at 22:00 hrs, arriving at 22:40 hrs.  Yes, the equipment arrived before us!  Organised transportation to an army base where we will set up base camp.

Thursday 28th January 1999

02:35 – All equipment sorted out.  Sat-comms set up and phoned Operational Office at 07:30 hrs UK.  Ray was out with John (from RAPID) and Embassy representatives.  They were looking at a potential new base camp as there were already other rescue personnel at this site.  We will not be working tonight as we have been told it is not safe without a military escort.  We decide to work IRC and RAPID as a joint team.

03:40 – Ray has just returned with information that the Americans would like us to set up a co-ordination centre with them for all international rescue teams.  This will be based at “Cisueron Barracks, Swan Battalion”.  Ray is going to organise a full sit-rep to send off later.

08:05 – Arrived at Swan Battalion.  Andy (the interpreter) and Peter (from the British Embassy) did a fantastic job getting us transportation for that move.  Went straight up to the American base camp.  Found that the city was split into 4 areas.  Area 2 had not yet been completed and was being run by the Red Cross.  Found out where their base was and set off to discuss our capability with them.

A helicopter returns to the military base

Other teams continue to work on collapsed structures.


Typical local housing in the town

13:00 – Since last entry in my log a lot has happened.  I have driven around all of area 2.  Mainly residential area with two storied buildings.   Most of the damage was to the front of the buildings or the roof – surprisingly very little total collapse.  Went to one area with total collapse on both sides of the road and arranged for two dogs, handlers and three other team members to search this area while I continued with a look around the rest of area 2.  After completion found that there was very little for us to do in there.  Spoke to the German and French teams who will be attending the co-ordination centre tonight with information of buildings covered.  Returned to the co-ordination centre and gave them all relevant information.  While talking, I was informed that a building had collapsed with one child inside.  Dispatched team to investigate and help.

18:30 – A team went out at 14:30 hrs at the request of the local fire brigade.  Once this task was completed they went to Caromoar and assessed the complete area.

19:00 – Have just given a verbal report to the IRC Operations Office.

20:10 – Have just spoken to Paul Bell (of an American team).  He informed me that there are about 1000 international rescue personnel working in the area at the moment.

21:00 – Team leaders meeting.  All countries gave a description of when they arrived, their capability, manpower and areas / buildings covered.   After this, a general discussion took place and the following was decided:

  1. We would all meet again at 09:00 hrs, as the local civil defence would then have a list of buildings that needed searching.
  2. A co-ordinator would be left in the centre.
  3. This would probably be the start of the winding up of the search phase.
  4. The local civil defence would probably start demolition shortly.
  5. Buildings would be allocated out to teams.

All searched buildings would be marked with an ‘S’ with an ‘X’ through it.  It would also have the name of the team and the date.  It was felt that the conventional UN marking was too difficult to understand.

Friday 29th January 1999

07:00 – Had a team briefing regarding the meeting last night.  We decided that we would probably be leaving Colombia on the Sunday flight.  Spoke to Peter and he is going to organise flights from Armenia to Bogota, and also contact the British Embassy in Bogota.

07:15 – Message to IRC Operations Office stating that we would need flights for Sunday.

07:50 – Team medic asked to go down to look at some children in Armenia.  Co-ordinated with the American team as they have a Doctor with them.

09:10 – Meeting of all rescue teams.  Each team reiterated information about the areas they have searched.  After a discussion, it was agreed that the search phase would be closing down and that the relief phase should start picking up.  It was also decided that most of the rescue teams would be moving out of the area over the next couple of days, depending of flights.

As we were walking back from the meeting a local fire chief said that there were a couple of sites that needed searching.  He asked if the British team could help.  We did.

A collapsed building

Site 1) On arrival it quickly became apparent there were no missing persons there and demolition was about to start.

Site 2) Joint IRC/RAPID search using the dogs.  Indications from the dogs were that there was something but, after several hours of searching the collapse, we concluded there was nothing to be found.

As the team was heading to the first site, Keith and I were asked to assess a local orphanage run by a British charity, only 10 minutes away.  On arrival it looked OK but, on further inspection, we found that most of the supporting walls were damaged – some to quite a degree.  It was suggested that if possible they should all move out.  This was not a possibility and they had got in a local builder who was propping with Bamboo.



17:45 – Have just sent a sit-rep to the IRC Operations Office. Since my last entry I have been to the airport with Ray and Peter to organise a flight to Bogota.  We originally wanted the flight about midday tomorrow but were informed that that would not be possible.  The only available flight would be a midnight tonight and I accepted the offer.  Peter will be flying ahead of us to organise transportation and accommodation for when we land.

Once back at base I organised transportation to the airport.  It will arrive at 22:00 hrs (give or take an hour).  Stuart is not at all well.

21:00 – At Armenia airport.  The vehicles turned up one hour early so got to the airport early!!  Stuart is still not very well at the moment and may need a doctor once in Bogota.  We have loaded all equipment on to a pallet ready for loading on to a C130.

Saturday 30th January 1999

01:30 – Have just taken off from Armenia to Bogota.

02:25 – Landed at Bogota airport where Peter and the Embassy staff met us.  We are being taken to a hotel in Bogota for the rest of the night.  All equipment is being kept in a secure area until we depart Colombia on Sunday.  I have been informed that I will be taken to Bogota airport on Sunday at 15:00 hrs with all passports.

23:30 – Went to see Stuart.  He looks a lot better than he did – he is well on the mend. Got a fax to phone the Operations Office and BBC Radio 5 Live.  Contacted both.  Radio 5 is phoning back at 01:00 hrs Colombia time for a live interview.

Sunday 31st January 1999

01:30 – Radio 5 interview done.  Also spoke to the BBC morning program and gave a further live interview.

20:00 – We are sitting in the BA lounge waiting for the flight.

Monday 1st February 1999

13:25 – We have just landed at Gatwick.  I am going to meet the rest of the team in the reception area.  They are sending me first just in case there are any press waiting!!


Name Position
Keith Underwood Team Leader
Ray Gray Team Co-Ordinator
Glen Lloyd Team Medic
Keith Parks Section Leader
John S Anderson Section Leader
Dave Maddock Communications
Brian Davison Equipment
Julie Blackburn
Stuart Kinsey
Sheena McCabe

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General Comments - (in response to press and public queries)

Yes, security was a problem, particularly during the night.  We were advised by the local civil defence committee that it would be unsafe to work in the town during the night and all of the teams followed that advice.  The local civil defence committee felt that it would be wiser to have a small number of soldiers with us at some of the sites we were working on during the day.

Why was it unsafe?

People had lost everything in the earthquake and damage across the city was quite substantial.  They had no food or water, were hungry and had no shelter.   The people were becoming desperate and desperate people may not always act in a rational way.  The police and military were doing what they could to control the situation under difficult circumstances.

Sniper fire?  Riots?

We heard gunfire on a fairly regular basis and, yes, there were reports of sniper fire but we were never actually fired upon.

We were aware of just one riot that occurred in a large supermarket not far from where we were working but this was quickly brought under control by the military and did not affect our work.

Why was search and rescue work stopped so quickly?

A meeting took place on Friday morning (29th Jan) where the team leaders from all of the international teams, along with the Armenia civil defence officials, collated information on the work carried out so far.  Once this information had been gathered it became apparent that all of the areas that needed searching had been done (in some cases more than once).  At the time the decision was taken to scale down the search and rescue operation there were over 1000 rescue workers from around the world working in Armenia. This enabled the search and rescue phase of the disaster to be completed both quickly and effectively