Hope for miracles among Turkey’s ruins running out


At some point in practically every disaster, the moment arrives when any realistic hope of survival is lost and, to protect the lives of responders, dangerous rescue efforts have to transition to recovery.

For the Turkish teams labouring in the southern city of Adana, that point came early Wednesday afternoon.

“This is the third day. In the morning, we had hope. But now, we don’t have,” said Bahattin Ulug, as he and his team paused for a break and to absorb the grim reality that all of their frantic efforts over the past 48 hours were not going to produce any miracles.

Ulug was one of perhaps 150 rescuers who had spent all of their waking hours since Monday’s earthquake atop the pile of pulverized concrete that had been a 12-storey apartment building in Adana’s fashionable Güzelyali neighbourhood.

The debris from the building is highly unstable and dangerous for the rescue crews to climb on, without the benefit of ropes or other safety gear.

A large group of onlookers gather behind construction vehicles, as others dig through a large pile rubble following a building collapse. In the background, some apartment buildings still stand.
Hope of finding survivors is fading for rescue teams in both Turkey and Syria, with the confirmed death toll approaching 12,000. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Large cranes and front-end loaders lift and shift huge concrete slabs that used to be the structural heart of the building — but any move could trigger more instability and jeopardize the rescuers.

So could an aftershock, of which there have been hundreds since the first 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit before dawn on Monday.

“Absolutely, it has been very difficult,” said Ulug. “The situation near the top [of the building] is very bad — seeing dead bodies is terrible.”

A crew from CBC News spent several hours Wednesday at the site, watching the rescue efforts, including the removal of several bodies that were brought out from the debris wrapped in blankets.

At several points, rescuers called for silence. Machinery, car engines, phones and anything else that made noise was turned off to give the teams on the debris a chance to hear if anyone was calling out to them.

No one was.

One neighbour told our crew the last time a person was pulled out of the rubble alive happened in the first hours after the collapse — a young boy. There’s been no good news since.

Two men wearing blue jumpsuits and hard hats talk to each other. One of them is wearing a face mask that's pulled just below his mouth.
Rescue workers in Adana take a brief break on Wednesday. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

When the first earthquake struck in those early-morning hours, the building didn’t immediately topple and many residents had time to leave. But by mid-morning, a powerful aftershock brought it down.

Friends and neighbours estimate there were likely between 90 and 100 people still inside.

Indeed, police have also evacuated several other nearby buildings, fearing they too may easily come down.

‘Nothing else to do’

In a taped-off area near to where ambulances pull up to take away the bodies, relatives of those missing and believed to be trapped inside held a silent vigil. They held hands and kept to themselves, shunning media interviews.

Occasionally, their silence was pierced by anguished cries after receiving the worst news.

WATCH | Now, the survivors need shelter:

Rescuers in Turkey race to save remaining earthquake survivors

Rescue workers in Turkey raced to save those still trapped under the rubble of Monday’s massive earthquakes. The next challenge is providing shelter for the thousands of people who’ve lost their homes.

As the afternoon progressed, the mood among those watching shifted as more bodies were removed — fuelled by the grim sense that those doing the searching had started to lose hope.

“There is nothing else to do,” said Vedat Fettulahoglu, who lives nearby and came to see if there was any way to help.

“Things in our country are very bad. At least in Adana, the situation is a bit better, if you compare it to other cities.”

It’s a measure of the ferocity of the disaster that Adana, a city of two million people, having to deal with 20 collapsed buildings, is perhaps considered fortunate.

A large group of people gather behind yellow police tape, as a police officer in uniform walks by. To the right of the frame, part of a construction vehicle is shown.
A large group of onlookers stand behind police tape at the site of a collapsed building in Adana. The city of two million people has about 20 collapsed buildings. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Turkey’s disaster management agency is quoted as saying there have been 5,770 confirmed reports of collapsed buildings, along with another 6,000 that have not been verified, across the quake zone in southern Turkey.

Some of those watching the rescue told CBC News that a victim can survive under the rubble for three or four days without water — and until that time runs out, they refuse to believe the worst.

A group of people stand next to a pile of rubble from a collapsed building, with a leafy green bush in the foreground.
The rescue effort largely turned into a recovery mission in Adana on Wednesday, with hopes fading that anyone in the rubble may still be found alive. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

But on Wednesday, as hope faded for many, it was replaced by a new emotion — anger, that such an earthquake-prone area could have been so poorly prepared.

“The contractors who are stealing the raw material for construction and the mayors who let them do it are guilty,” said Hazar Hasar, 22, who lost a close friend in the apartment block.

After a deadly earthquake 23 years ago that killed more than 17,000 people, the Turkish government brought in a levy to help deal with disaster mitigation and prevention.

Many people are now asking what that money was used for.

A man with a mustache and beard, wearing a yellow hoodie with a brown jacket over top, is shown outside. Buildings, trees and a couple of other people are blurred in the background behind him.
Hazar Hasar lost a close friend in Monday’s earthquake, which caused at least 5,770 buildings to collapse in Turkey. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

“We want honesty and transparency — they aren’t just stealing the raw materials, but also the lives of people,” said Hasar.

Late on Wednesday, Twitter appeared to go offline in most of Turkey — which some internet-monitoring groups suggested was an effort by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to clamp down on criticism of its disaster response.

On a tour of some of the hardest hit areas near the epicentre, Erdogan acknowledged problems but offered assurance logistics are improving.

“We had some problems in airports and roads but we are better today. We will be better tomorrow and later,” he said.

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