We Were Too Late, and the Rubble Was Quiet

ISTANBUL — We were late to the scene of the crime.

Two days late. When the first earthquakes hit southern Turkey on Feb. 6, it took one full day of planning and one full day of travel before we reached the epicenter, Gaziantep. The flight from Istanbul usually takes about 90 minutes, but there was a rush of people heading south to help, and our group — about 160 search and rescue volunteers — had to wait our turn.

When we finally reached Islahiye, a town in Gaziantep Province, a man with dust-encrusted hair asked the gendarme why, four days after the earthquake that had caused the Sehit Zafer Yilmaz apartment building to collapse on his family and 19 others, we were finally listening for sounds of life in the rubble. He had told the same gendarme that he heard sounds on the first day and the second and the third but had been told there was nothing there. “There are 6,000 other districts like yours,” the gendarme said. There were many other districts, and many other buildings. In Islahiye alone there were at least 140 other buildings like the Sehit Zafer Yilmaz apartments; in the week that we were there we were assigned eight of them.

During the pandemic, I joined an organization that trains volunteers for neighborhood search and rescue teams so that each neighborhood has people who know what to do in the first crucial hours. An organization born out of the shared belief that when the next earthquake struck, we’d have only one another to rely on, and here we were.

When an earthquake hits at night, the usual approach is to try to reach the bedrooms first, but the Sehit Zafer Yilmaz apartments folded like a book: An upstairs bathroom spilled into a downstairs balcony, and a kitchen floor dangled above our heads. So we began to dig at random. We were a loud mess of gendarmerie, miners, construction workers, police, municipal workers, local volunteers and searchers and rescuers, with our jackhammers, hydraulic cutters, shovels, grinder machines, excavator and crane, each of us answering to a different team leader, all of us balancing on a precarious mound of twisted metal and concrete that could tumble at the next aftershock.

In Turkish the place we were excavating was, in rescue-speak, the olay yeri, which also means “the scene of the crime.” I found the term appropriate. The first victims we found there were a man and his baby daughter. The toes of his bare blue feet pointed up, and his daughter’s leg was curled around his. Where his waist had been was a block of concrete. It was too risky to reach them, so we had to leave them where they were and move on to the apartment of a woman and her daughter. We found them clutching each other. The woman’s husband, a policeman who had been helping on the site, wept silently as we rushed to cover them with blankets before zipping them into two black body bags.

We used a detector that can pick up the gentlest vibrations, like the shuffling of feet. On the fourth day we called out for anyone who was trapped to tap three times on the nearest object, and I saw the red bars on the monitor sigh up and down, suggesting a response.

The policeman near me was unimpressed. Twice already he had dug up a corpse where a noise had been detected. But, he said, we should search for everybody, dead or alive, with the same enthusiasm. The next morning our team pulled out a toddler from roughly the spot the detector had marked. A paramedic said he probably died a few hours earlier.

On the sixth day a sniffer dog was brought to seek out any last warm breaths and found nothing.

At another of the buildings I was assigned to there were rumors that the contractor who’d built it had been murdered. Contractors are being talked about here as if they should shoulder the blame for all 40,000 deaths and counting. Certainly they played their part, cutting corners and bribing the auditors who are meant to check whether the buildings are up to code. But what about the man who, we were told, knocked down the supporting ground floor columns of an apartment building to make way for a supermarket? Or the concrete maker who still sells concrete mixed with sea sand and large rocks, despite all the regulations that forbid it? Or the nth mayor who forgot about the earthquake emergency plan spread on his desk and left for a coffee break? Or us, the would-be rescuers, who were two days late?

There were rumors that people in Islahiye threw stones at the district governor’s office, attacked aid workers and stole rescue equipment and supplies of food. I could not verify any of the claims. But so what if they did? They have been failed by everyone. They were made homeless, left to camp out day and night in temperatures as low as 23 degrees Fahrenheit, with their families shellshocked or half missing or both, waiting to learn if they would have to bury yet another of their own. So many of them are poor and have always been last in line for everything.

By now many of these families have split again. Some have traveled across Turkey to squeeze into the homes of relatives as they wait for the new apartments they’ve been promised. Some have been herded into camps and will wait there.

On Monday night, another powerful earthquake measuring 6.4 struck the region. Emergency workers have started looking for survivors under the newly collapsed buildings. This time, their hearts will be heavier, but at least the dust won’t yet have settled.

Naomi Cohen (@naomireneecohen) is a freelance journalist in Istanbul.

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