Remembering the Lives Saved Drives Rescuers in Turkey to Push On

Taking a break from combing through the ruins of a powerful earthquake, Ahmet Aydanbekar rested in a courtyard in a salvaged blue armchair and thumbed through his phone to watch videos of past rescues.

Shouts of “God is great” erupted from a video taken in southern Turkey when he helped pull out a 5-year-old girl named Melek from the rubble a day after the Feb. 6 disaster. Remembering the lives saved keeps him going, he said, despite the exhaustion and the grim knowledge that the window for finding survivors is rapidly closing.

Across the hard-hit southern city of Antakya, the smell of death hung in the air.

“It’s hard to have hope,” Mr. Aydanbekar, 43, a volunteer rescuer with the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish aid group, said as he smiled wearily. “The first 72 hours are the most important to find people alive. All the people we’ve found alive after 72 hours are a miracle.”

As of Sunday, the thousands of international and domestic rescue workers in the earthquake zone were winding down the hunt for survivors. Then on Monday night, the same region was jolted by another powerful quake, sending rescuers rushing to newly collapsed buildings where tenants had returned, either to live because they believed they were safe, or to retrieve their belongings.

Ahmet Aydanbekar, a volunteer with Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation. “The first 72 hours are the most important to find people alive,” he said. “All the people we’ve found alive after 72 hours are a miracle.”Credit…Emin Ozmen for The New York Times

The Feb. 6 earthquake killed more than 41,000 people in Turkey, destroyed more than 100,000 buildings and left more than a million people homeless, according to government officials.

In neighboring Syria, more than 5,000 people died, according to the United Nations. In northwestern Syria, the hardest hit area, one civil defense group’s search for survivors ended on Feb. 10, after just five days of rescue efforts.

At the height of relief efforts in Turkey, nearly 12,000 international rescue workers from 88 countries fanned out across a zone that stretched for 250 miles, according to Winston Chang, a U.N. coordinator of disaster response, who helped oversee the effort. But some of those international rescue crews have already come and gone.

After Monday night’s quake, rescuers kicked back into action as more buildings collapsed in or near Antakya and at least six people were killed in Turkey.

Coming in the wake of thousands of aftershocks over the past two weeks, Monday night’s quake also shifted mounds of rubble still to be searched, further complicating the rescuers’ task.

Deadly Quake in Turkey and Syria

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 6, with its epicenter in Gaziantep, Turkey, has become one of the deadliest natural disasters of the century.

  • Near the Epicenter: Amid scenes of utter devastation in the ancient Turkish city of Antakya, thousands are trying to make sense of an earthquake that left them with no home and no future.
  • A Flawed Design: Residents of a new upscale tower in Turkey were told it was earthquake resistant, but the building collapsed anyway. A close look offers clues as to why.
  • Miraculous Rescues: Two brothers who rationed protein powder while trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building for about 200 hours were among those rescued in Turkey a week after the quake.
  • In Erzin: The small Turkish city survived the quake with no casualties and little damage. The mayor credited his enforcement of building standards, but scientists say it is more likely about geology.

Over the weekend and into Monday in Antakya, those who remained pushed on and regularly invoked God, gazing up to the skies when they talked about the chances of still finding survivors. A small number of improbable rescues in recent days have captivated the country and given the workers fresh hope.

On Saturday, a wife and husband were pulled out alive from their home, 296 hours after the earthquake hit, near where Mr. Aydanbekar’s crew was working in Antakya.

Still, with tens of thousands dead, it was just a small buoy of joy in an ocean of mourning.

Much of the rescue effort is now focused on Antakya, where crews on Friday combed about 200 buildings. By the end of Saturday, the search was down to 40 buildings, and only about a dozen were left by Sunday.

Up the road from where Mr. Aydanbekar was resting on Sunday, members of his crew were at the site of two downed buildings. They worked carefully because a third building was partly braced against the mound of rubble and they feared that it would collapse as they shifted the debris.

Days earlier, ambulances were stationed expectantly at practically every search site, their sirens a blaring comfort that life was still being found among so much death. Now, across the city, those ambulances have been replaced by green-and-white mortuary vans.

Miners outside the mayor’s residence in Antakya, which was damaged in the quake. They have been helping in the aftermath.Credit…Emin Ozmen for The New York Times

A psychologist with the Humanitarian Relief Foundation advised rescuers to call or video chat with their friends and family regularly to remind them of home comforts and to combat stress, said one worker, Mohammad Zahiroglu, 45, as he watched three excavators sift through a search site.

Every day, Mr. Zahiroglu said, he tries to call his parents in Istanbul, who are closely following the news about each rescue.

They ask him what his searches are like. He does not tell them that now, it is mostly death.

Some rescuers said that they kept tiny bottles of mentholated ointment in their pockets to dab under their nostrils in an effort to mask the stench of bodies. Others had scrawled their blood type on their hard hats in case they, too, became victims.

In the central Cumhuriyet neighborhood of Antakya, where government buildings once stood, three apartment buildings had collapsed together into one indistinguishable heap. As an excavator pulled up scoop after scoop of debris, household objects peaked out of the mass of concrete chunks and twisted metal — a rug, a math workbook, a pressure cooker — remnants of the lives the earthquake interrupted.

Rescuers in green hard hats stood along the ridges of a giant mound of rubble, watching and scanning each scoop in case a body was pulled up and they needed to take over, digging by hand.

Two green body bags lay at their feet.

Sitting below, on the edge of the mound, twisted metal snaking around her, a rescue worker from the Turkish disaster and emergency management agency waited. Next to her was a red backpack with a seismic sensor, used to detect buried victims.

The one thought that kept playing in her head, she said, even two weeks after the quake, was that she needed to work faster. If she sped up, maybe she could find someone alive. As she combs through the rubble, she said, she tries not to focus on the personal effects that she comes across, especially photographs of the victims who could be buried underneath.

Rescuers in Antakya. Recently, much of the rescue effort has been focused on the city in southern Turkey.Credit…Emin Ozmen for The New York Times

Getting emotional would only make her job harder, she said, dressed in a black hoodie splotched with dust and a red helmet and headlamp. She did not want to give her name because she was not authorized by the emergency agency to speak to reporters.

Around her were a mix of rescuers from both government and private groups, soldiers and police officers, and coal miners from Turkey’s north. The miners have erected hundreds of stable tunnels for rescuers to crawl through the rubble without fear of getting crushed.

One man sat on a chair, watching, like so many families who have kept vigil at search sites.

He was waiting for his daughter-in-law’s grandparents. He did not think that they had survived, he said, but he wanted to make sure he was there when their bodies were pulled out, so the family could bury them in marked graves.

Many families have expressed anger at the Turkish government’s response and rescue effort, which have been criticized as slow and haphazard. Some waited for days outside crumpled buildings before any rescuers arrived.

By Sunday, among the few families still waiting, that anger appeared to have evolved into quiet desperation.

At one of the sites where Humanitarian Relief Foundation members were working, family members pulled up chairs to the sidewalk across the street and watched intently, as if facing a stage where a tragedy was unfolding.

Taking a break from search efforts in Antakya on Monday. Some rescuers said that they kept tiny bottles of ointment in their pockets to dab under their nostrils in an effort to mask the stench of death.Credit…Emin Ozmen for The New York Times

A few crushed and damaged buildings away, a crew from Kyrgyzstan had pulled out the wife and husband who survived after 296 hours — a Syrian refugee couple — on Saturday.

Around noon that same day, the rescuers had begun breaking through layers of debris when they found a crevice big enough for someone to lay in. They called out for anyone still alive and listened.

“We didn’t think we would find anyone alive after all this time,” said Almaz Asanov, a colonel with the Kyrgyz crew. “But then we heard a voice.”

The next day, they were back at the same apartment building, its six floors densely pancaked to the height of a one-story building, looking for three more people buried underneath.

Rescuers raised their arms to hush the gathered crowd. Everyone quieted. The workers leaned forward, listening. A dog was brought to sniff the wreckage. But they heard nothing.

Sunday was the first day that no one was found alive.

Gulsin Harman contributed reporting from Istanbul. Esma Cihan contributed translation.

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