Turkey’s trapped earthquake survivors face cold, lonely death as 72-hour threshold passes
Time is running out for the hundreds, perhaps thousands, still trapped in collapsed apartment buildings in southern Turkey and Northern Syria. The human will to survive may burn strong but the body’s strength fades fast beyond the 72-hour mark without warmth and sustenance.
Secil Arnas is one of countless Turks who hope against hope that their loved ones will survive. Her husband Fatih is buried within the remains of a 16-storey high-rise here in central Adana, where for three days she has kept a constant vigil.
At 4.15 local time on Monday, as the region was violently jolted by a large 7.8 magnitude earthquake, Mrs Arnas spoke with her husband for 41 seconds over the phone before the line went dead.
His last words, shouted amid the thunder of cracking walls and groaning concrete, will never leave her: “The building is coming down.”
Experts caution that the chances of finding people alive after the three day mark falls dramatically, yet Mrs Arnas, like many others, is refusing to give up.
“When the phone cut out, I came straight here,” she says. “I won't leave or sleep until Fatih is out.”
Over and over again, her resolve is cruelly put to the test as calls for silence ring out across the mangled heap of concrete and steel from where she keeps watch.
“There was a voice calling for help!,” one of the rescue workers shouts, urging quiet so the source of the sound can be identified.
The waiting crowds – a restless hive of families, friends and neighbours, all huddled around makeshift bonfires – stop in their tracks, praying that it will be their loved one who is pulled from the wreckage.
Mrs Arnas rises to her feet, in hopeful anticipation of a miracle, but it’s another false alarm.
“They cannot stop,” says Secil, 39, whose husband had been visiting his parents at the time of Monday’s violent earthquakes.
The building, which was home to 24 families and only built 15 to 20 years ago, is one of thousands to have collapsed in southeast Turkey.
The scale of destruction in the region, which is no stranger to earthquakes, has still to be precisely determined but all agree it is vast.
Entire neighbourhoods have been levelled, roads ripped open and oil pipelines destroyed, setting fire to the landscape in apocalyptic scenes.
But such damage pales in comparison to the human cost. The World Health Organization estimates that the final death toll may pass 20,000, which would make it the highest figure recorded by Turkey since its 1999 earthquake.
Many of these lives will likely be lost in the coming hours – simply because they cannot be dug out in time.
“The window for post-earthquake search-and-rescue is rapidly closing,” said Ilan Kelman, a professor of disasters and Health, University College London. “Typically, few survivors are pulled out after 72 hours.”
‘Time is always the enemy’
Prof Kelman explained that many people in an earthquake die due to immediate medical needs, such as bleeding to death or succumbing to crush injuries, which result from collapsing walls, flying glass, and falling objects.
Although Adana has not reported the same devastation as other cities, local hospitals are said to be struggling with a high number of patients suffering from severe injuries sustained during the earthquake, according to local media reports.
Prof Kelman said that others will perish amid the freezing temperatures that have gripped parts of southeast Turkey.
“So people die through hypothermia,” he added. In these instances, victims will become drowsy and confused, making it difficult to call out for help, before slipping into unconsciousness and eventually dying.
Many simply die due to a lack of food and water while awaiting rescue, Prof Kelman said. “Time is always the enemy.”
But even as the clock ticks, the people of Turkey wait and pray. “There’s always hope from God,” says Durdane Arnas, a relative of Mr Arnas.
Seven of her relatives were in the high-rise building that fell in the centre of Adana: two were killed, two survived, three remain unaccounted for – a niece and two nephews.
To help with identifying the bodies that have already been pulled from the rubble, local police hand out pictures that were discovered from the ashes of the building. Books, clothes and other personal items have been lined up on walls and in the street, too.
But Durdane cannot find any answers among these vestiges. “There’s nothing worse than not being able to do anything,” she says, her eyes full of tears.
Although all are supportive of the rescue efforts, many believe the authorities are not moving quickly enough to scour through Adana’s collapsed apartment blocks – a complaint that has been raised in several cities throughout the region, especially those in the east, where resources are said to be scant.
Cem Burke, 27, said two of his friends were sleeping when their buildings went down during Monday morning’s earthquakes.
He believes there should be more cranes and diggers available to quicken the search process, and accuses the government of failing to properly invest taxes that have been levied specifically for improving the country’s earthquake response measures.
“This is the government’s failing,” he says, pointing to another concrete tomb in the heart of Adana, filled with the dead and the missing. “We pay a lot of money for this shit. It was supposed to be for cranes to help with recoveries, but this isn’t good enough.
“We are losing valuable time.”
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