When Ali Nusret Berker started seeing Twitter videos posted by people trapped under the rubble of the two Feb. 6 earthquakes in southern Turkey, they brought to mind the cousin he had lost when a massive earthquake hit his hometown near Istanbul in 1999. An avid cave explorer who just passed an exam to become an ambulance driver, the 33-year-old decided to go straight to the Yalova headquarters of AFAD, Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, where he was a search-and-rescue volunteer.
“I couldn’t sit in my warm home when they were screaming for help,” he tells TIME.
But sit at home is exactly what AFAD told Berker to do. He had to come back the next day to badger officials to send him and other volunteers south on an overnight bus ride to Iskenderun. There, AFAD employees tried to keep Berker and his ad hoc team from going to the hard-hit city of Samandag, he says. But the team caught a lift with a local man and eventually pulled five people out alive with a jackhammer, generator, and bolt cutter, which also had to be provided by residents. At least 800 people have died in the city.
“If we had equipment and if we reached Samandag quicker, we could have easily saved more,” Berker says. “There were so many voices that we couldn’t count. But after hours and hours the voices were going mute.”