San Francisco Chronicle
Quake survivors keeping vigil for missing
Relatives wait among ruins for news in a battered Turkish city
ADIYAMAN, Turkey — After her sister and her niece were trapped in the ruins of their apartment building during the earthquake that struck southern Turkey last week, Cigdem Ulgen rushed to the site to try to save them.
She had no way to dig through the metal and concrete snarl that remained of the building in the hard-hit city of Adiyaman, so she settled in the street with her mother and siblings for a wait that became more agonizing as the hours, then days, dragged on.
As rescue crews dug through the rubble, the family scavenged through chairs and a sofa. Volunteers dropped off metal fire pits, bottles of water, lentil soup, hand cream, cigarettes and oranges. More than a week later, they were still there, waiting for news that had yet to come.
“We are always here. We sit. We try to sleep. We eat what is brought to us by people, not by the government,” said Ulgen, 38. “We won’t leave until they’re out.”
Nine days after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake and a powerful aftershock struck Feb. 6, death has become part of daily life across the quake zone, with more than 40,000 dead in Turkey and Syria and the tolls expected to rise.
During that time, the Turkish news media has broadcast constant coverage of daring and improbable rescues, including one of an 18-year-old man pulled from the ruins alive in Adiyaman on Tuesday, 198 hours after the quake. But as such saves become increasingly rare, families across the disaster area are hunkering down near the wrecks to wait for their loved ones to be found.
The impromptu vigils are simple, painful gatherings. Families sit on curbs, squat on rooftops and perch on nearby rubble to watch excavators claw through concrete. They feed salvaged wood from shattered cupboards and shutters into campfires to ward off the winter chill and brew tea over the flames.
As they wait, rescue crews consult them to figure out how many people were in a given building when it toppled over like a Jenga tower, or where to bust through the roof to reach a missing woman’s bedroom.
When bodies are exhumed, often disfigured or decomposing, they stand by as body bags are briefly unzipped to identify relatives — by their faces, missing teeth, fungal toenails or earrings — so they can be laid to rest.
Many of the families are furious at the government and say they did not see rescue crews until two or three days after the quake, when the window for survivors to be saved was shrinking fast. Confusion followed, they said, as rescue crews, both Turkish and international, came and went, some lacking equipment to do the job, others leaving before it was finished.
As they waited, their hopes dimmed.
“First, we came thinking we could save them,” said Ibrahim Savas, Ulgen’s brother. “Then we thought maybe we could save them, but injured. Now we just hope to recover their bodies.”
He and two of his sisters who also lived elsewhere in Turkey had rushed to Adiyaman after the quake and had been amazed to find no one to search their sister’s building.
They soon learned that a rescue team had already worked on the building next door and left. The day after the quake, workers had retrieved the bodies of Yakup Tas, a member of Parliament for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, and members of his family, the state-run news media reported. But when Ulgen reached the site that evening, the rescuers were nowhere to be found.
“They came with everything they had for the lawmaker,” Ulgen said. “And then they left.”
A week later, the family was still waiting when rescuers laid three black body bags containing four bodies on the sidewalk nearby. A family that had been camped out next to them approached, hands over their noses and mouths, to glimpse the bodies, wailing at what they saw.
A half-hour later, the other family was gone, the fire that had kept them warm turned to ash, their vigil over. Ulgen and her relatives kept waiting.
Around Adiyaman, residents salvaged possessions from what remained of their homes: blankets, photo albums, rugs, a pair of jeans worn by a dead brother with a car key and a folding knife still in the pocket.
Near a public clock that had frozen in time at 4:17 a.m., the moment of the quake, men rummaging in a hole in the rubble pulled out dusty but otherwise intact bottles of liquor — more than three crates’ worth.
The building’s ground floor had housed his family’s liquor store, said Mustafa Gokhan Demir. They planned to clean up the bottles in hopes of selling them elsewhere.
“It’s all we have left,” he said.