El Salvador October 1986


3 km south of San Salvador

Magnitude & Depth

5.7M & 7.0 kilometers

Team Deployment

14 member rescue team + 2 dogs


The 1986 San Salvador Earthquake struck El Salvador on October 10th 1986, causing considerable damage to the capital city, San Salvador, and landslides in the San Salvador area.  Surrounding areas were also affected, including neighbouring Honduras and Guatemala. Between 1,000 and 1,500 people are believed to have been killed, and over 10,000 people were injured. 200,000 people were left homeless after the earthquake and a week of minor aftershocks. Although of only ‘moderate’ magnitude, the earthquake was a shallow event right under San Salvador, and this led to the destruction of many structures, including the city’s children’s hospital, the multilevel/underground marketplace which at the time of day was filled with people, and many apartment buildings and restaurants (one next to the American Embassy, which itself was badly damaged and later replaced on a new site), and shanty towns.
Village built on side of valley. John Pledger, Guy McCurley and Dave Kemp.

Shanty area (Santa Marta) – outskirts of San Salvador.

Ecificio Duenas. Department Store.

Ecificio Duenas. Department Store.

Rubin Dario. Shaft cut down to try and rescue a survivor.

Rubin Dario. Search dog working in the rubble.

Rubin Dario. Cutting a vertical shaft by hand. Very slow – but safe method of working.

Rubin Dario. Slabbing operation. Quick but dangerous method of working.

Grand Hotel. The ground floor has collapsed into the basement. The team were working in the basement when hit by a 6.5 aftershock.

A team member working in the rubble. Mike White.

Grand Hotel. One team member (Dave Kemp) starts the descent to the basement.

San Salvador University. The ground floor has collapsed and is partially held up by the vehicle. John Pledger.

The team and their equipment were to assemble at Marlow by 0700 hours on the Sunday. Following the packing and final check of equipment, copies of the official letters from the El Salvadorian Ambassador were distributed to the team members and we left for Heathrow.
British Airways staff met us and ensured that the team and all their equipment was shepherded along through the media etc., and arrived on the plane at the correct time. Our flight to Miami was as we expected uneventful, with service from the crew being second to none. At Miami British Airways staff helped us with customs and immigration, finally leaving us with Challenge International Airways who would take us on to El Salvador.

Challenge laid on a special flight which saved us approximately 12 hours, and landed at 0213 hours local time at San Salvador Airport. Having cleared customs we were met at immigration by representatives from The Committee Emergency International. We were welcomed by the club president on the C.B. radio and taken to their H.Q., where a phone call was placed to our embassy. Arrangements were made and we proceeded to the Sheraton Hotel to set up our base camp in the grounds as the building was unsafe. With help of our local contacts and British Embassy staff the team started its task.
From the beginning it was clear that we would have to work on many sites in various locations.

To enable this to be carried out effectively the team would spend much of its time split into 2 or 3 small work teams.


A large complex built in approximately 1960. It consisted of a central block 7 storey high, which although badly damaged and in danger of collapse, had remained standing with no loss of life or people trapped within. The area on the left hand side of the central building had been occupied by some 300 – 350 people at the time of the earthquake. The limited information available only accounted for approximately 50 survivors. Many teams from various countries would work on this location. At the start teams would try to locate survivors using the dogs, sond and thermal image equipment.
When a possible survivor was located a shaft would be cut by hand from the roof down to the ground floor enabling the area to be searched. This process is comparatively safe for the survivors and rescuers but is very slow. Each shaft would take approximately 8 – 15 hours to cut and as many as 60 such shafts may have been required to totally search the debris. It was decided on the 5th day after the earthquake to start slabbing work. In this technique heavy plant is used to cut the debris into large sections, which are then removed using a crane. This demolition is comparatively quick in uncovering survivors or bodies but it is dangerous to carry out and is often responsible for the death of survivors.
The team spent approximately 282 man hours on this site and it was from here that the last live person was taken 8 days after the earthquake. It is sad to report that 1 hour after rescue she died of heart failure.


This was a 7 storey building. The ground and first floors had collapsed into the basement with the 5 upper floors sitting on top.

An American and Mexican team had already penetrated from the front. Team members managed to travel some 35 to 40 metres underground, often through spaces only just large enough to squeeze into.

Only hand tools were used to dig and cut their way forward. The casualty was located but was dead. It was during the operation to try and retrieve his body that an aftershock of 5.5 struck. Our team members some of whom were underground escaped uninjured. Approximately 55 man hours were spent on this site.


This is an area in the mountains away from San Salvador. The area had been hit by landslides which had destroyed the houses and roads.

Many people had been injured and medical aid was required. The doctor started treatment and a search was started using dogs, thermal image camera and search lights. IRC was the first team into the area locating and helping 48 families. Relief agencies were informed of the location and further help arranged. A total of 273- man hours were committed to this area.

Rubin Dario. Team working on left side. Joe Darrell, John Pledger and Willie McMartin.
Rubin Dario. Team working on left side. Joe Darrell.
Team working in Rubin Dario. Willie McMartin and Dave Kemp.

The mission to El Salvador was to be yet another first for the IRC as this was to be the first time British Dogs would be used abroad. The dogs and their handlers came from The Search and Rescue Dog Association (S.A.R.D.A.) which works mostly with the various mountain rescue teams around Britain. Working in the devastation caused by an earthquake would be totally new to them.

IRC were responsible for work on over 30 sites and were also able to help our doctor set up small clinics in outlying areas.

Time was also found to locate relatives for people in Britain. On our final day, only a few hours prior to our departure, we received a request to try to locate a baby and arrange for him to join his adoptive parents in England. We located the child who has since joined his new parents.

Our return home was a lengthy process, due to time change and a twenty three hour stop-over in Miami for connecting flights.

This stop-over was made more pleasant by British Airways who supplied hotel rooms and by Dade County Fire Department who entertained the team for 8 hours.

The flight from Miami afforded us a chance to relax and enjoy the excellent service provided by British Airways, prior to our home-coming and subsequent adjustment back to a normal life.

The Team

William McMartin – Team Leader
Gregor Dobbie
Joseph Darrell
Michael White
Terry Glanvill
Geof Milne
John Pledger

David Kemp
Guy McCurley
Mike Hawkins
Keith Park
Neil Warrall
Mike Conran

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