Family steps in where government efforts falter

Engineers searching for 5 trapped relatives

August 22, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GOLCUK, Turkey -- It was early yesterday when members of the Aydin family finally took a break from digging out corpses of their relatives.

Golcuk, pulverized by Turkey's huge earthquake Tuesday, seemed a scene from hell. Its buildings are rubble; most of its residents are evacuated -- or dead.

But the Aydins were an island of calm. A clan of nearly 40 brothers, sisters, cousins and spouses, they had traveled nearly 600 miles from the eastern city of Erzincan to rescue or bury five trapped relatives. They have met with success and grief.

They brought jackhammers, drills, electric generators and lights. They worked around the clock, taking shifts. And now, camped in front of an abandoned school, they relaxed in the soft glow of candlelight to drink tea and smoke cigarettes.

"You can't escape earthquakes," said Ridvan Aydin, 30, who helps manage the family construction company. "We worked hard back in Erzincan to build earthquake-proof houses, only to find ourselves called into this earthquake here."

Turkey is a nation built around families and extended families, and they have been particularly crucial in the aftermath of the earthquake.

By Friday, the government had not provided tents or toilets for the hundreds of thousands left homeless. Food, water and commodities such as soap and diapers have been distributed almost entirely by charitable groups and as donations by private companies.

In the absence of government coordination, families and neighbors have set up impromptu tent communities and support networks from Istanbul and Izmit.

It is common to find three generations of a family sleeping on the same blanket and setting up routines to divide the labor. Men excavate bodies. Women prepare food.

The Aydin family may be in a league of its own.

Golcuk, where they have come, is demolished and rotting. Nights are dominated by screaming ambulances and excavation crews digging up bodies under the white glare of spotlights. Most residents have fled to villages in the nearby hills.

The Aydins brought what amounted to their own engineering corps.

Construction is the family business, and dealing with earthquakes is a long tradition in Erzincan, which was hit by a deadly one in 1939 that killed 30,000 people.

"The government has been rather weak," said Ridvan Aydin. "But we know a lot about earthquakes, and we know where to start looking for people."

The Aydins were pulled to Golcuk by loyalty and grief. The loyalty was to Ridvan's mother and the family matriarch, Fazilet, who had lived here years ago when her husband found work at the factories in Izmit. Fazilet formed the center of the family group that came here for the rescue operation.

The grief centered on a 4-year-old girl named Halil, the daughter of Ridvan and his wife, Sevil. Halil had come for a visit with her maternal grandmother, who lives in Golcuk. Of the five relatives who had been trapped when their house fell in on them Tuesday, Halil was the only one still missing.

"When I first came, I had no idea of how bad the destruction was," Ridvan said. "I immediately called back home and told them I needed electric generators and a lot of other equipment."

Before the reinforcements arrived, 33 hours after the quake, he pulled out his wife's mother, Hamide Celebi, who was badly bruised and weak but alive. A government helicopter whisked her to a hospital in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, a huge clan of brothers, cousins, nephews, nieces and wives organized themselves into a caravan of trucks and cars the next day. By that point, the road to Golcuk was so choked with similar rescue efforts that it took more than four hours to drive the last 10 miles from Izmit.

The family commandeered an empty school near the collapsed house that held their kin.

They brought out the family samovar, the tall silver Turkish kettles used for serving tea. They had brought their own bottled water and propane stove, and they tapped the school's well for washing water.

The men, ranging from teen-agers to fathers in their 40s, divided themselves into two 12-hour shifts a day. The women made meals and kept the rudimentary house in order.

By late Friday night, they had extracted two of the remaining three bodies belonging to relatives. The one that was still missing was Halil's.

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