On the southern edge of Italy's Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga National Park, less than a fortnight ago guests and staff at the Hotel Rigopiano were enjoying the panoramic views and skiing. Now the Hotel is buried beneath an avalanche of snow, as rescue teams have finally concluded their desperate search day and night for those we knew were still trapped inside the building. Following days of heavy snowfall, which led to the disaster, the weather began to thaw, bringing its own risk to all those involved in the rescue operation.
As the only non-emergency personnel at the site, the RRT volunteers from the UK, Germany and Ireland worked around the clock to ensure that the rescuers on site can have hot food and drink through-out the day and night in bitterly cold conditions.
The scene of devastation, despite our experience providing support in natural disasters, was almost overwhelming. As we set up our base, some 500m from the hotel, at the edge of the disturbed snow of the avalanche itself. It seemed almost impossible that anyone could have survived the carnage we had seen.
The darkest moments came on Wednesday, when it became clear that the search was no longer for survivors. At this moment, the brave men and women who had been working solidly for days, began to struggle. Exhausted, and drained, we saw people at their lowest ebb. The moment that will stay with me is the time I spent with Alberto, an Italian medic, who wept as he thanked us in broken English for being there. In a place filled with a sense of such despair, we felt humbled to be able provide support in our own small way, which made such a different.
Collaboration is one of the key elements to any emergency situation. As Italy has been coming to terms with the scale of the operation mobilising its own resources, European support for the rescues services has been flooding in. In times of tragedy, communities, governments, international emergency services, and voluntary organisations all have a part to play to support each other and enable action.
The desire to prevent, limit and manage disasters is not a new one, and the successful prevention of many human and natural disasters means that, as a global society, we are able to dedicate more resources to them as and when they happen. For millennia civilisations have sought to address and prevent disasters as they happen - from Roman firefighters through to government legislation and in the 1990s The United Nations General Assembly even designated the decade as the 'International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction'. However, for all this work, it is undeniable that disasters will continue to happen, and just as rescue services are there to support victims, there is a place for volunteer organisations to provide the auxiliary support that keeps the mechanisms going.
The challenges on the ground here are many. Access to the site is severely limited, and with the journey between the site and our temporary residence, only 60km away, has taken up to six hours. Securing the site itself to ensure the safety is another issue - while the snow has been compacted all around us, as conditions change and the snow begins to thaw, reviews will need to be conducted. Then of course, there is the environment itself - the cold doesn't just come from the atmosphere around us; standing for hours on snow means there is no respite from the cold that seeps through boots and layers of clothing, right into our bones. And finally there is the sheer scale of the issue - up to 200 rescue workers have been working around the clock, needing support to keep up their energy, body heat and also their moral.
And what is the impact of what we do? When we arrived on site, a number of the rescue services recognised us from our work following the Amatrice earthquake in Italy in August last year. That is the value of our work - we provide a moment of support and calm in situations where tragedy becomes the expectation. An international community of volunteers who come together, sometimes without a shared language but able to express themselves through action. That is the value of our work - giving up time and energy to contribute to the common goal of reducing suffering and loss in times of need, making sure that victims of disaster, and those who face adversity to support them. And as this disaster continues to unfold, as those battling on watch the remaining hope begin to fade, we will make sure that they are given the support they need to carry on.
The courage, dedication and determination of the individuals who have made it their life's work to save others is extraordinary, but everyone can make a difference. Working as a team, all dedicated to the same cause, in this Italian village we can see how collaboration between local, national and international organisations can be supported by the voluntary sector. And what is ever clearer is that every community - be it local, national or global - can only be as strong as the support network that holds it up.
What is the Rapid Relief Team?
The Rapid Relief Team is a volunteer, not-for-profit organisation, set up to support local communities in times of need; We do this by serving food and drinks to emergency services personnel, helping out at homeless missions and support work for other charities.
The core service of RRT is to provide quality catering and refreshments efficiently. This benevolent relief is offered to persons in need with compassion and care by our teams of willing volunteers. Our volunteers are dedicated to providing compassionate, friendly and effective help. RRT members are part of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC).