For despairing Turkish families, the frantic search continues

Bulldozers, bare hands dig through the rubble for survivors and bodies

August 19, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

IZMIT, Turkey -- Engulfed in the darkness of collapsed concrete early Tuesday morning, Nuray Yildiz heard people screaming her name but could not answer with more than gasps.

Gulping fresh air from a small pathway through the debris, the 14-year-old spent the next 12 hours clawing her way out while her parents and neighbors tried to dig their way in without accidentally killing her.

"I had thought, `I cannot die, but I am waiting to die,' " the brown-haired teen recalled yesterday. "When I realized I could breathe, I knew I wasn't completely underground and had a way out."

Nuray's brother, Omer, 10, never did. Nor did her aunt in the room next door. Nor did at least 1,000 others who died in this gritty industrial city near the epicenter of the powerful earthquake that rocked Turkey.

Yesterday, as the quake's death toll across Turkey climbed, people here spent their day digging, sifting, grieving and increasingly despairing that those who had not escaped from the rubble were probably dead.

They watched as bulldozers and front-end loaders tried to unearth bedrooms, which is where most people were when the earthquake struck at 3: 01 a.m. Tuesday.

Then, amid dust and smoke and sweltering heat, residents picked through the rubble with hammers and chisels and bare hands. As delicately as if they were on an archaeological dig, they teased out shreds of clothing, old photos, scraps of furniture and, inevitably, bodies.

There was no shortage of heroes or valiant efforts. But there was a desperate shortage of equipment and rescue workers, who were stretched over thousands of individual catastrophes spread over hundreds of square miles.

Indeed, for all the good will, Izmit remained wildly out of control yesterday. Soldiers and relief workers were all but invisible at many of the worst sites. And just a few minutes' walk from where Nuray and her family had pitched a tent of scrap wood and carpets, Turkey's biggest oil refinery continued to burn uncontrollably and spew vast clouds of black smoke for the second full day.

The closer one traveled to Izmit, the more pervasive the destruction. Minarets on many mosques looked like twigs snapped in the wind. Along Highway E-5 through the center of town, buildings on almost every block had been flattened or ripped open as if a hurricane had swept through. Many leaned more steeply than the Tower of Pisa.

Men and women tended to divide their labor. Women congregated in improvised campsites, caring for children. Men stayed near the piles of rubble, heaving aside rock and searching for bodies.

Typically, bulldozers and other heavy construction equipment would lift off ceilings and carve a path to where the bedrooms were supposed to be. Neighborhood men and boys then did the more delicate job of sifting for bodies and personal belongings.

But there weren't nearly enough government bulldozers, and it was not until 2: 10 p.m. yesterday that one turned up on the street where Hakki Ercan grieved over the deaths in his family.

Ercan, 64, had persuaded a private construction company to lend its bulldozer for the five-story apartment building owned by a relative.

But by yesterday afternoon, he was trying to cope with two deaths in the family. Ercan's daughter-in-law had been crushed under four stories of concrete. His son, who had been pulled out by neighbors and taken off in an ambulance, suffered a heart attack when he found out that his wife was dead. He died shortly after arriving at the hospital.

"This is the worst tragedy I have ever seen in my life," said Ercan, a burly gray-haired man. Casting aside the typical Turkish male stoicism, he wept.

Yumus, Ercan's 16-year-old nephew, added: "We felt death, and I'm still feeling death. I just want to get out of this hell."

But there was no leaving. Atmis Euler Mahalles spent hours yesterday afternoon gingerly chipping away at the building next to the Ercans'.

The task was both dangerous and horrifying. The sea-blue, five-story building had split in two, with the top two stories of the right side plunging straight to the ground while the left side remained bizarrely normal.

Still buried in the rubble was an 8-year-old girl. Mahalles, a friend of the girl's family, stooped below a crumbling concrete precipice that jutted from what had been the third-floor balcony but was now just five feet off the ground.

Using a hammer, chisel and metal-cutters to snap the mangled steel reinforcements, Mahalles poked and scraped beneath the precipice in a painstaking effort to reach inside. A blue-and-green highchair lay crunched in the rubble.

Under a shared tent just across the road from the garish yellow-and-green facade of an Aktuel supermarket, mothers, grandmothers and children huddled with Nuray Yildiz, angry at their helplessness.

"Why do you even bother writing pointlessly in your notebook?" erupted Hatice Hasan, a mother in her 30s, as a reporter approached. "What we need is help! We need food and medicine."

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