Fear and miracles at the center of the earthquake’s devastation

Chances of finding survivors grow dimmer in Turkey and Syria, where the death toll exceeds 23,000, but rescue teams still managed to save a few people on Friday

Spanish military personnel pulled out two young brothers from the rubble on Friday.

Cuma Gögremis, 52, repeats a phrase in broken English: “City finished, city finished.” His city, Pazarcik, located in the province of Kahramanmaras, at the epicenter of the earthquake, has been razed. He points to the west, in the general direction of the fault that caused the earth to tremble before dawn on Monday. As he stretches out his arm, the ground shakes again, mildly but noticeably, then stops.

Gögremis is chatting around a fire with his younger brother, Tolga Özgur, and other residents of the neighborhood. The natural disaster that has already claimed over 23,000 deaths, 20,000 of them in Turkey, has gotten deep into their minds. Every day, they say, they wake up naturally at 4am. That is the time when their houses began to shake on Monday.

With each passing day, the rescue operations get more complicated and the hope of finding someone alive grows dimmer. Provinces such as Kilis or Sanliurfa have stopped the search for survivors. But there are still miracles taking place. The Austrian rescue worker Michael Erhard, from the SARUV organization, is here with his trained dog. On Friday morning, his team helped pull a woman and a child out of the rubble. “It’s a great feeling,” says Erhard with wide eyes despite the long shifts - eight hours on mission, six hours off and back again. “I’ve helped save two lives.”

There was another miracle on Friday when, after spending 58 hours trapped in a basement under the rubble, a 60-year-old woman was pulled out alive by a Spanish rescue team at a spot 160 kilometers from Kahramanmaras. Also on Friday, Spanish military personnel pulled out six-year-old Elif and his two-year-old brother Muslim from the rubble. Their mother was still trapped under the ruins of a 12-story building that collapsed in the town of Nurdagi, 154 kilometers east of the Adana base where the Spanish troops are operating, in the province of Gaziantep, one of the worst affected by the earthquake.

“The children are fine. When things like this happen you realize that all the effort has been worth it,” explained Major Aurelio Soto, spokesman for Spain’s UME (Military Emergency Unit).

Erdoğan visit

Adiyaman, a city also badly hit by the earthquakes, received a visit from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday. Halfway between this city and Kahramanmaras, the Gögremis brothers huddled around a bonfire in Pazarcik. Tolga, 27, shows videos of the destruction of his house, and opens his hands, full of Band-Aids on his fingers. A few minutes after walking out the door, the Gögremis’ house fell apart.

The effects of the 7.8 magnitude quake are also visible in the outskirts of the city of Kahramanmaras, capital of the same-name province. The destruction grows as one gets closer to the city. Some sections of tarmac are broken, as if struck by lightning. There are warehouses lying on one side, houses scrunched together like accordions, lampposts leaning backwards.

Outside Kahramanmaras (population 1.1 million), Turkey’s disaster management agency AFAD has built a base camp to coordinate rescue teams and help affected families. There is a constant rush of trucks and cars coming and going with supplies. Inside the compound, guarded by the Turkish police, dozens of citizens gather around bonfires to warm up and eat. The tension is still palpable, five days after the quakes.

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