Jeff Zausch is no stranger to survival situations. The Pocatello native made multiple appearances on Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid” and is one of several rotating survivalists featured on the newest season of the network’s “Dual Survival.”
But when Zausch got wind of a burgeoning coup last Friday as he sat in Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, he was thrust into a different survival situation than the ones he’s used to.
Zausch was an hour away from departing Turkey when a news notification came up on his phone — Turkish soldiers were attempting an insurrection. Within minutes, all flights were grounded. Zausch, along with his film crew of 12, packed up and headed to the airport’s basement hotel to weather the attack.
“We began watching CNN from the hotel TV, and for the first time we noticed the extent of the situation. We began to see images of tanks and thousands of people marching towards our airport,” he told the Statesman via email. “While watching the news, our entire room began to shake and there were very loud screams and loud noises coming from above our hotel room.”
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According to Zausch, some “very scared tourists” told the Discovery crew that gunfire spooked a stampede of people fleeing in search of safety.
“The paint was falling from our hotel room ceiling in a fine dust. The screams and sound of thousands of footprints were incredibly frightening,” he said. “It was at this moment when I realized that we were now in a survival situation and we needed to prepare for the worst.”
Zausch said he and TV partner EJ Snyder called on their training, stockpiling food and water as quickly as possible from a storage hallway connected to the outside terminal — the source of all the screaming and a potential entry point for rebel soldiers who were firing weapons as they marched through the streets.
“Once all of the food and water was collected, we began to collect fire extinguishers and any other items that could be used as weapons against any potential armed men who may decide to enter the hotel,” Zausch said. “We then downloaded airport maps from the internet and began to plan an escape route just in case.”
The situation worsened as what sounded like a large bomb detonated nearby. Frightened tourists streamed into the hallway, giving reports of explosions and gunmen just weeks after dozens died in a bombing at Ataturk. Turkey’s government blamed the Islamic State for the late June attack that killed more than 40 people and injured at least 250 more.
Zausch said he began to worry that terrorists were involved in this incident as well.
“EJ and I began securing the hallway door from the inside, to protect everybody inside of the hotel from any potential terrorists on the outside. We tied the door shut and pushed a 2,500-pound commercial freezer up against the door,” he said.
“Once the survival mindset kicks in it’s almost like your body just takes over and you begin to do what you need to stay alive. And that’s exactly what we did, but not just for us, but for all of the people in the airport hotel, guests and terrified escapees who came in through the side door.”
Amid the hysteria, two men recognized Zausch and Snyder from their “Naked and Afraid” appearances. The presence of the survivalists seemed to bring them some calm.
“They jokingly expressed their relief that they had just randomly entered an unmarked doorway which led them to 2 professional survival experts,” he said. “I have survived in almost all natural environments across the world, everything from desert to Arctic, but I have never survived in a war zone before.”
The pair shared their evacuation plan and hunkered down, weathering two more explosions and mass panic as they waited to find out more about the battle outside. Around noon on Saturday, Zausch said, they were finally able to leave the hotel as reports of the attempted coup’s failure were confirmed.
Within 28 hours, the “Dual Survival” crew was on one of the first flights out of Istanbul, courtesy of some serious lobbying by Discovery Channel and U.S. officials. Zausch and his companions flew to Johannesburg, South Africa, where they were set to continue filming.
Despite having just escaped a harrowing attack, the Idaho State University alum was eager to jump into yet another life-or-death situation, this time one he vastly preferred.
“There’s no such thing as rest in the TV business. But hopefully this time I can stick to surviving lions and hyenas — that’s a whole lot more enjoyable than trying to survive a Turkish coup.”