‘Most of the people we found under the rubble were dead’: Hopes fade for Turkey earthquake survivors

In Kahramanmaras and Pazarcik, rescuers comb the rubble, often finding only body parts

Rescue workers in Kahramanmaras said they could smell corpses as they dug through piles of debris, the centre of the town now so devastated by the earthquake and its aftershocks that many buildings had been reduced entirely to rubble.

“We hope there are two people still alive under there,” said Zafer Yildiz, a volunteer, pointing towards a pile of concrete, twisted metal and furniture. “Most of the people we found under the rubble were dead,” he said.

Mehmet Boskert carefully extracted a prayer book from the remains of a multistorey building as he dug with gloved hands in the hope of finding his brother and sister-in-law alive.

“After I managed to dig myself out from the rubble when my house collapsed, I came here to try to find them,” he said. “I can only hope, but it seems too late. The emergency teams arrived too late, and only today did they bring these diggers. I hope they can do something.”


The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, visited Kahramanmaras on Wednesday to meet survivors now living in tents in the town’s stadium. He pledged that “we will never let our citizens stay on the street” and promised financial aid and compensation for repairs. Meanwhile, people wrapped themselves in blankets as they searched for shelter in the local park, named after the day that Erdogan’s government repelled an attempted coup.

Erdogan announced that new homes would be constructed “within one year” in the 10 provinces affected by the earthquake, but provided few further details, including how new constructions might be fortified against future shocks.

As he was speaking, emergency workers in Kahramanmaras continued to comb the wreckage, often finding only body parts. “We have tried to identify people, but many bodies were so destroyed that we had trouble identifying them,” said a volunteer who gave her name only as Daria. “At one point we found only an arm, we had to show it to some of the families to try to identify it.”

In the remote town of Pazarcik, another stop on Erdogan’s tour of the disaster zone, Hasan Cıtak clung to hope that his parents and brother would be found alive under their destroyed apartment block. He was tearful and desperate. “I have been here since the earthquake waiting for the emergency workers to help,” he said. “We have hope, we are waiting.”

Residents of Pazarcik, a town above the epicentre of the deadly quake and a place associated with higher levels of support for Turkey’s opposition parties than in other surrounding areas, said they felt bitter at how long rescue workers from the relief agency Afad had taken to arrive. Most had arrived on Wednesday morning, they said, after volunteers and firefighters had struggled to handle the initial response.

“I arrived early this morning. I’ve been pulling people out of the rubble. Some of their bodies were frozen from the cold,” said Ufuk Akgun, a rescue worker. “I don’t believe there’s hope of finding people alive.”

On a side road close to where Erdogan had been, a small group of rescuers used diggers and their own strength to comb through the debris of a family home, as the occupants’ relatives sat in a circle around a nearby fire, sobbing and comforting one another.

“There were eight people under there, one injured, and seven were dead. We are trying to find two we hope are alive,” said Mehmet Ali, standing nearby with the family. “There is no state in this country,” he said. “There has been nothing here for days, the government only gives aid to places that vote for them, and they don’t send aid to the villages.”

A boy pulled from the rubble the day before sat in an armchair surrounded by friends and relatives. His father’s body had been pulled out on Wednesday morning. In tears, he waited for rescuers to find his mother’s body.

Witnesses said that until Monday evening, less than a day after the first tremors struck, they could hear voices and cries for help from people trapped under the ruined buildings. Then, on Tuesday morning, silence had fallen over the ruins of Pazarcik.

People weaved between dilapidated and empty buildings carrying what few belonging they could. “The Afad first responders arrived 24 hours after the earthquake,” said a man who gave his name only as Ali. “Before they got here it was only workers and firefighters trying to get people out from under the rubble. But it needs professionals.”

He added: “After the first earthquake, I rushed to my friend’s house and I heard his voice from under the rubble. A day later, I couldn’t hear it any longer. If the emergency services had got here earlier, they could have saved him.”

A cleanup operation was visible in the town. Aid workers distributed soup and bread while people gathered sacks of rubble outside the bakery as a first step towards repair. Some of the newer buildings had withstood the worst of the shocks with minimal visible damage.

“My house collapsed so we’re living in tents now,” said Mehmet Kahraman, who had stopped outside a heavily damaged mosque. Ambulance sirens echoed in the streets. Another man and his wife squeezed through a gate to pray among the ruins of the mosque, whose minaret was so badly damaged that the call to prayer could emit only a clanging noise. The woman helped the man wash his feet before they began their ritual.

“Rescue workers arrived but it’s not enough, we have no electricity, no water and no gas,” Kahraman said. “The phones are not working. We lost so many people, we still cannot reach them. I have three family members under the rubble in our village …” He broke off, in tears. – Guardian