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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Remembering the lives saved drives rescuers in Turkey to push on

Rescuers with the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, volunteers and soldiers search through rubble from a collapsed building in Antakya, Turkey, on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023.

By Raja Abdulrahim

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,” 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.

The Feb. 6 earthquake killed more than 41,000 people in Turkey, destroyed more than 100,000 buildings and left more than 1 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 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.

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 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 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 Aydanbekar was resting 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.

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, 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.

Many families have expressed anger at the Turkish government’s response and rescue efforts, 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.

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 — 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.

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