KAHRAMANMARAS – Precious hours have turned to tense days across earthquake-hit southern Turkey as fewer people are pulled alive from the rubble. While family members watch rescue workers shift to recovery, they also face an awful truth: that it's unlikely they'll ever be reunited with their missing loved ones.
In Nurdagi, a city of around 40,000 nestled between snowy mountains some 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the epicenter of the quake, throngs of onlookers — mostly family members of people trapped inside — watched on Thursday as heavy machines ripped at one building which had collapsed, its floors pancaked together with little more than a few inches in between.
Mehmet Yilmaz, 67, watched from a distance as bulldozers and other demolition equipment began to bring down what remained of the building where six members of his family — including three children and a three-month-old baby — were trapped.
The operation there had become one not of rescue, but of demolition.
“There’s no hope. We can’t give up our hope in God, but they entered the building with listening devices and dogs and there was nothing,” said Yilmaz. He hasn't moved from his hopeful perch beside the building for three days.
He estimated about 80 people were still trapped within the collapsed structure, but said he didn’t believe any of them would be recovered alive.
“The building looks like stacks of paper and cardboard, the fifth floor and the first floor have collided into one,” he said grimly, his eyes full of resignation.
Scarcely a building remains in Nurdagi that has not suffered major damage. In those where it was believed there could still be survivors, workers used pick axes, jackhammers and shovels to carefully chip away at the hunks of concrete and twisted knots of rebar in hopes of discovering a sign of life. In other buildings, like the one where Yilmaz's family was trapped, it became more about recovery.
In Kahramanmaras, the nearest city to the earthquake’s epicenter, workers on Thursday continued to search for survivors, but most of their discoveries were comprised of the dead. Standing atop a tall mound of debris, three men reached into a crevice and pulled out a body wrapped in a red blanket, its bare feet protruding.
The body was placed in the bucket of a backhoe and slowly lowered to the ground.
One rescue worker was heard saying that his psychological state was in decline after days of searching, and that the smell of death among the rubble was becoming too much to bear.
Nearby, an indoor sports hall serves as a makeshift morgue to accommodate and identify bodies that were recovered from the debris. On the basketball court-sized floor of the hall lay dozens of bodies wrapped in blankets or black shrouds, at least one of which seemed to be the small body of a five or six-year-old child.
At the entrance to the morgue, a man wept aloud over a black body bag that lie next to another in the bed of a small truck.
“I’m 70 years old! God should have taken me, not my son!” he cried.
Erdal Usta, an assistant to the provincial prosecutor, said the bodies that are dug from the rubble are brought to the building and catalogued, and await identification by relatives who can then transport them to receive burial.
One woman, who did not wish to give her name, said she had brought the body of her father-in-law to the morgue to be formally registered as deceased. She and her family, she said, had dug the man out of the debris with their own hands, but he had been crushed in the collapse.
In Nurdagi, 67-year-old Mehmet Nasir Dusan sat in a chair watching as the remnants of a 9-floor building were brought down by excavators in billowing clouds of dust. He said he held no hope, either, of reuniting with his five family members trapped beneath the debris.
Still, he said, recovering their bodies would bring some small comfort.
“We’re not leaving this site until we can recover their bodies, even if it takes ten days,” he said. “My family is destroyed now.”