Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Trained for Terror:
At the March 11 attacks in Madrid, he led the rescue that saved hundreds of lives

Time Europe  October 11, 2004

 

JUST AFTER 7:39 A.M. ON THE MORNING OF MARCH 11, Dr. Ervigio Corral Torres was arriving at his office in southern Madrid when his mobile phone rang. It was the duty officer at SAMUR, Madrid's emergency services unit, who told him that the Atocha train station had been hit with what looked to be terrorist bombs.

Corral Torres had been heading SAMUR for only four months. A compact, athletic man of 44, he had helped found the service in 1991 and worked as an emergencyambulance doctor thereafter, directing rescue operations for more than a dozen attacks by the Basque separatist group ETA. But this blast was on a horrific new scale. When Corral Torres arrived at the devastated station just four minutes after the attacks, he sprinted down the platforms and into broken trains to evaluate the situation. "Many times when passing alongside an injured person, I had the urge to help them," he says, "but I didn't do that because I shouldn't. I had to be organizing." After making an instant evaluation of the scene, he learned there had been other attacks. He sent ambulances and emergency equipment to the other sites, brought in more resources, and ordered his people at Atocha to start evacuating the injured.

The March 11 attacks, which took 191 lives and injured more than 1,500, were among the worst in modern European history. But what Madrileņos remember today, along with the pain, was the way the city came together. And while there are hundreds of tales of extraordinary compassion and sacrifice, someone had to take charge of the rescue effort. That job fell to Corral Torres, who directed 215 medics, technicians and ambulance workers and 173 volunteers at four separate sites. "This was different from other attacks I'd seen," he recalls.

"Everyone was running out of there horrified. When we arrived below to the platforms there was an absolute silence." The force of the blast left the survivors temporarily deaf and physically stunned, only able to gesture for help with their eyes or hands. "They did not hear you when you asked how they were," he says.

Because the SAMUR teams reacted quickly and efficiently, they are credited with saving some 400 lives. Corral Torres credits their rigorous training and experience in dealing with ETA bombings. As the medics worked on the devastated train platforms, surrounded by huge plates of twisted metal and scattered human remains, there was no shouting or frenzy, just quiet professionalism. "There practically wasn't one word louder than the other," said Corral Torres. Their task was made all the more difficult when two false alarms went off in the station, and he had to evacuate his teams before bringing them in again.

Within two hours the SAMUR teams had finished their work at the Atocha station and the other three sites where bombs had exploded. They had set up an ad hoc morgue in a nearby park, where anguished families assembled to await news. Corral Torres and two colleagues took personal charge. "Each time that we entered the waiting room, we were hated by all the families, because we were going to say the name of a family member, and they knew that he had died." This lasted 16 hours; Corral Torres estimates that he spoke to a family every 10 minutes. "It was very difficult and I didn't want to leave it to anyone else," he says.

Even with all of their training, the rescuers felt the blow from that day, too. In the days that followed, more than 90 SAMUR workers were treated for psychological trauma. Corral Torres got to spend just two hours with his wife and two children before he had to go out again, to man the demonstrations as an estimated 2 million Madrileņos gathered in the city center. Typical of the solidarity that Madrid still feels, Corral Torres doesn't think of himself as a hero. "We were a team in SAMUR and I had the luck - well, luck no, the responsibility - to be there. I have never thought that I am a very important man. No, we were a team." That team saves lives day in and day out - and like most teams, it is only as good as its captain.

From the Oct. 11, 2004 issue of TIME Europe magazine Posted Sunday, October 2, 2004; 12:34 BST

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