Verity’s Holger Sommer delivers help where it’s needed most
Arriving in Turkey in February 2023
When Holger Sommer’s team from @fire successfully pulled a mother and daughter from the rubble in Turkey days after the recent earthquake, it was a moment of great joy—and great sadness. The rescue had taken 20 hours of intense digging by the small search and rescue team, so everyone was exhausted. And while they were able to save two lives, it was impossible not to lose heart at the sight of the father and daughter who, just inches away, did not survive. “These situations are so complex,” says Holger. “We are grateful whenever we are able to save someone, but when so many other lives have been lost, it’s happy and tragic, all mixed together.”
This difficult and important work is what Holger sees as his life purpose—and one that he has been fulfilling for most of his life.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Holger volunteered for his village’s fire brigade when he was just 13 years old, becoming a full member when he turned 18. In 1999, when friends from another village asked him to join one of the largest medical NGOs in Germany, he jumped at the chance to do more—and help more. And help, he did. That same year, NATO bombed Yugoslavia. “The invasion of Kosovo came during my time between school and the start of my apprenticeship, so at age 19, I suddenly found myself on a 2-week deployment in a war zone,” says Holger. Originally trained to fight fires, this was his first humanitarian aid mission. It would not be his last.
In 2003, Holger served on a needs assessment team immediately following the earthquake in Iran. “The buildings there were constructed from air-dried sand brick, so they collapsed in on themselves. There were very few survivors, but we did what we could to help.” The next year brought the devastating 2004 tsunami, with Holger spending nearly a month coordinating logistics of relief deliverances, including renting aircraft and securing cargo space. Next, in September 2005, he took a 5-week assignment in Sri Lanka, helping to dispatch water purification plants in areas where the tsunami had damaged the local wells and made the water undrinkable. He was home only one day from that mission when a major earthquake struck in Pakistan! His employer graciously agreed to give him 3 weeks off for the needs assessment, which was then extended to 6 months of unpaid leave so he could assist with project work like setting up and running a rural health center and housing projects in Pakistan`s North Western Province. Happily, the humanitarian aid agency ended up covering his pay.
Fighting wildland fires in Germany in 2020
Though he did take a brief break afterwards, he never left his passion for aid work far behind. After moving to Switzerland and joining Verity, he maintained his ties with the German Federal Agency for Technical relief. However, administrative complexities kept him on the sidelines, forcing him to pause his humanitarian missions for 5 years. When, in 2013, he joined @fire, a German-based NGO with connections in Switzerland, that all changed. He started training again, this time with a focus on fighting wildland fires and new search and rescue techniques. He has been working with @fire ever since, including fighting the recent wildland fires in Germany, France, and Portugal.
When Holger received a call from his team in the morning of February 6, he assumed he would soon be involved in a mission in Chile. “We were already in conversations to assist with the fast-growing wildfire there… at the time I had no idea what had just happened in Turkey.” He was soon in action, working with @fire to coordinate search and rescue efforts. “Turkey was extremely fast with their decision to allow relief organizations in to help. And because @fire is the first team classified by the UN as a ‘light’ urban search and rescue team, we are often able to deploy and arrive much sooner than ‘heavy’ teams that require more coordination and resources to move into an area.” This was a great advantage in Turkey, where @fire was one of the first teams to arrive on the scene in Kahramanmaraş—one of the hardest-hit areas in the region.
Initially, Holger was assigned the role of Communications Manager, overseeing the IT and Communication infrastructure in the online coordination cell. “Once Turkish Airlines confirmed they would fly our team to the area, we managed to get 19 people, 2 tons of equipment, and 2 dogs from Frankfurt via Istanbul to Adana, and then by road to Kahramanmaraş, an area with some of the highest buildings and, therefore, some of the highest casualties. “Our team was in place and providing assistance by Tuesday evening, which is incredibly fast,” says Holger. “Our team worked around the clock and was able to rescue 4 people in the first 48 hours after the earthquake.” But the scene was so horrible that even the most experienced on the team were shocked. And because the area is so vast—nearly as big as the Netherlands—there was too much work to be done. “A team of Israelis had arrived, and there were local teams, but it wasn’t enough. We needed much more manpower.”
Before @fire even asked Holger to head to Turkey, Jennifer Shanks, Verity’s Head of Operations, asked him when he was leaving. It’s that level of support Holger appreciates—and that he has come to expect from the whole Verity team, from senior management to the colleagues he works with every day. “When I was asked to help cover the fires in Eastern Germany, everyone said, ‘Go!’ There was never a question. Of course, we first made sure none of our client installs would be in jeopardy, but as soon as we knew everything was on track, I was able to leave with almost no notice at all.” The same was true when @fire asked Holger to catch a flight from Zurich to Adana to support the UN coordination efforts. Holger left on Thursday, and as soon as he arrived in Adana, he got to work. “Since I’m an EU Civil Protection-Trained Assessment and Coordination expert with a strong background in logistics, coordination, and communications, I got the task to support the UN Reception and Departure Centre, what we call the RDC, in Adana airport. This is the first contact in the country for incoming relief teams.”
The RDC group, including 4 members of @fire and 2 members of the British NGO SARAID, was tasked with registering each new team when they arrived, briefing them on the current situation, and then transitioning them to AFAD, the Turkish agency that would assign them to a sector and provide transportation to get there. “The work is short and intense,” he says. “We are responsible for everything that needs to get done until the larger ‘heavy’ teams arrive.”
The RDC group at the UN Reception and Departure Centre at Adana airport.
As a ‘light’ team, that also means Holger and his colleagues often face significant physical challenges. “When I arrived in Kahramanmaraş on Saturday, the heating unit had broken some nights before, so the only source of heat we had was an open wood fire—in negative 10 degrees! I was lucky that I still had my sleeping setup from Pakistan, but others were so cold they were afraid to go to sleep, so they just didn’t.” The stress of the situation certainly did not stop them from doing an amazing job: the @fire team was able to rescue a total of 5 people, including a 15-year-old girl that was saved an incredible 105 hours (about 4 and a half days) after the disaster. (View highlights of @fire’s Turkey mission here.)
A successful rescue by @fire in Kahramanmaraş.
It is a dangerous job, but Holger says that knowing what he does is deeply appreciated makes every moment worthwhile. “In Turkey, someone handed each of us a rose when we deplaned, and people applauded when we walked through the airport. We were greeted the same way in Frankfurt after our arrival.” Leaving Turkey was also ripe with emotion. “A woman drove us to our plane in an electric cart, and when she stopped to drop us off, she started bitterly crying. I think people are just so overwhelmed to know they are not alone in a disaster like this. It matters so much that teams like @fire can be there to help.”
Over the past 20 years, Holger has worked side by side with search and rescue volunteers from all over the world. In 2003, he witnessed Iran open its borders to allow teams to come in and help earthquake victims. In Turkey, he saw teams from Armenia, Greece, Israel, Ukraine, and Russia working together toward a common goal. “It gives me hope in our humanity. It shows me that when we need to, we can come together to help whoever is dealing with catastrophe,” he says. “I’m proud to be part of every mission—and proud to work for a company that supports my passion for helping people whenever and wherever a crisis calls.”
Verity’s Logistics Coordinator Holger Sommer is a specialist in Logistics, Assessment, Coordination, and Communication. For more than two decades, he has been involved in the European Civil Protection Mechanism (EUCP), an organization comparable with FEMA. EUCP experts coordinate closely with specialists at the UN to respond to large-scale disasters around the globe.
@fire is an NGO, founded 2002, now has ~500 members from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria whose core competencies include wildland firefighting and urban search and rescue. @fire is the first UN INSARAG Certified USAR light team in the world and has completed missions across Europe, as well as in Thailand, Haiti, Philippines, Nepal, Pakistan, Lebanon, Armenia, Turkey, and Bolivia.