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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Under the rubble: Gasps of air, protein powder and miraculous rescues

A man walks among the rubble of a minaret that fell into his yard after the earthquake in the Kayabasi village, Turkey, on Feb. 11, 2023.

By Jason Horowitz and Gulsin Harman

For about 200 hours, two Turkish brothers entombed under the rubble of a collapsed building in the earthquake-devastated city of Kahramanmaras held on, rationing bodybuilding supplements, drinking their own urine, swallowing gulps of air.

“Breathing was easy,” one brother, Abdulbaki Yeninar, 21, told the local Ihlas news agency. “We took protein powder.”

On Tuesday, rescue workers pried Yeninar and his brother, Muhammed Enes Yeninar, 17, from the cement and twisted metal, one of at least nine such improbable rescues over a week after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake leveled towns, killed tens of thousands of people and displaced many more in Turkey and Syria.

In the same city, teams dug a tunnel 16 feet long through tons of fallen walls, floors and piping to reach a woman, in a rescue that was broadcast on live TV. And to the south, a volunteer mining crew joined the efforts to save another, earning tribute from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said they “will never fade away from our memories.”

The miraculous rescues served as rare bright spots in one of the bleakest periods in memory for Turkey, what Erdogan said Tuesday could reasonably be called the “disaster of the century.”

He reported a new death toll for his country, 35,418, and the United Nations said that more than 5,500 Syrians had died. Millions more people in both countries have been displaced since the quake devastated the region last week, with many afraid to return to damaged buildings and struggling to survive in makeshift shelters and extreme cold.

Relief organizations typically scramble to find survivors in the first 72 hours after a natural disaster, as the passing of time exponentially diminishes hope for finding signs of life. In the past week, more than 35,000 Turkish search and rescue teams joined thousands of international workers to dig through the rubble, according to AFAD, Turkey’s emergency management agency.

In recent days, desperation has increasingly set in as the rescue missions have turned to recovery, a humanitarian crisis has taken shape, and hard-hit and hard-to-reach Syrian towns have lamented that they have been forgotten.

On Tuesday, as the total death toll in both Syria and Turkey surpassed 40,000, Turkish authorities arrested more contractors suspected of shoddy construction that violated building codes.

Critics of Erdogan, who is seeking to defend his response to the disaster, drew attention to videos that showed him previously hailing some of the housing projects that crumbled and buried people. And Turkish police detained scores of social media users on accusations of spreading panic-inducing posts.

But as Turkey’s National Defense Department and national broadcasters shared footage of the rescues, the rare glimmers of good news were celebrated.

In the city of Adiyaman, in southeastern Turkey, rescue workers in bright red and yellow hard hats and vests contrasted sharply with the dust-caked skin and hair of a young man they sought to free from the rubble.

After digging out the man, identified by state news agencies as Muhammed Cafer Cetin, 18, they hooked him up to an IV, fitted him with an oxygen mask and wrapped him in a shimmering survival blanket.

They then delicately carried him in a stretcher over the debris under which he had been buried to an ambulance waiting to take him to the hospital. His condition was not immediately clear. Another man, Ramazan Yucel, 45, was also rescued in the province, according to state news agency Anadolu.

Finally free, the exhausted Yeninar brothers emerged from the rubble, their eyes shut and their arms bound in stretchers as rescuers in fatigues and bright vests carried them away in Kahramanmaras, near the epicenter of the quake.

Desperate for good news, the workers embraced one another and cheered as the brothers left for the hospital, where they explained how they had survived to the news media.

Rescuers had pulled their mother, also alive, out of the rubble two days earlier, and she was being treated in a hospital in the city of Kayseri for leg injuries, they said.

In the same city, the state news service Anadolu Agency broadcast the rescue of Aysegul Bayir, 35, live to a rapt Turkish audience. Viewers watched as rescue teams dug a 16-foot tunnel through the ruins to reach her.

In the same leveled town, Muharrem Polat, 32, and his wife, Hadiyet Polat, emerged from the rubble after 203 hours. In Antakya, a volunteer mining crew from the northern province of Zonguldak found Emine Akgul, 26, and pulled her to safety, according to the state broadcaster TRT. Another woman was rescued in Antakya City in Hatay province, 204 hours after the quake struck.

Erdogan hailed the miners, saying, “The tunnels they dug, bringing out our citizens, are truly extraordinary deeds.”

While the footage of the survivors, lifted out of the ruins to applause, heartened rescue workers who had been clawing through the frigid cement for days and encouraged a grieving population, the rescues were most likely a fleeting, and perhaps final, dose of such news.

The chances of finding more survivors will only dim as the hours and days grow, experts say. And facing the challenges posed by millions of homeless and displaced citizens, many of them hungry, Turkey and Syria grappled with the scope of the relief effort and the search for accountability.

On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced the launch of a $397 million humanitarian appeal for Syria over three months. The agency had released $50 million from its emergency funds for shelter, health care, food and protection for 5 million Syrians who, he said, are not getting the quake aid in the scale and speed that they require.

“Aid must get through from all sides, to all sides, through all routes — without any restrictions,” Guterres said.

In northwestern Syria, the earthquake’s damage spanned a region carved up over 12 years of civil war: areas held by the government of the authoritarian president, Bashar Assad, and by forces opposed to him.

The opposition side has received only a trickle of aid, in part because of the difficulties of getting access to the region. The government side, where outside relief has been coming in through major airports, tightly controls and restricts the flows of aid from its territory to the opposition side. Before the quake, only one border crossing from Turkey was used for all U.N. aid flowing to the opposition-held side.

Assad has now agreed, for the first time since the war began, to allow two more border crossings from Turkey to be used to temporarily supply aid to opposition-controlled territory in the northwest.

As the United Nations sought to broker terms with Syria’s government, Turkish authorities turned toward the question of unsafe construction. The justice minister, Bekir Bozdag, said Sunday that legal proceedings against more than 130 people were underway over their suspected ties to collapsed buildings.

Among those charged was Sukru Isitmen, a builder of at least six collapsed buildings in the Besni district of Adiyaman province. Isitmen is a member of the executive body of the district’s branch of the president’s governing Justice and Development Party.

Hours after rescue workers pulled the latest survivors from the wreckage, after night fell and the temperatures dropped again, Erdogan addressed the nation.

“Our search and rescue teams pulling out our citizens alive” he said, “even after many long hours, is the most important source of consolation amid this dark picture.”

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