After her sister and her niece were trapped in the ruins of their apartment building during the earthquake that struck southern Turkey last week, Cigdem Ulgen rushed to the site to try to save them.
She had no way to dig through the metal and concrete snarl that remained of the building in the hard-hit city of Adiyaman, so she settled in the street with her mother and siblings for a wait that became more agonizing as the hours, then days, dragged on.
As rescue crews dug through the rubble, the family scavenged through chairs and a sofa. Volunteers dropped off metal fire pits, bottles of water, lentil soup, hand cream, cigarettes and oranges. More than a week later, they were still there, waiting for news that had yet to come.
“We are always here. We sit. We try to sleep. We eat what is brought to us by people, not by the government,” said Ms. Ulgen, 38. “We won’t leave until they’re out.”
Nine days after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake and a powerful aftershock struck on Feb. 6, death has become part of daily life across the quake zone, with more than 40,000 dead in Turkey and Syria and the tolls expected to rise.
During that time, the Turkish news media has broadcast constant coverage of daring and improbable rescues, including one of an 18-year-old man pulled from the ruins alive in Adiyaman on Tuesday, 198 hours after the quake. But as such saves become increasingly rare, families across the disaster area are hunkering down near the wrecks to wait for their loved ones to be found.
The impromptu vigils are simple, painful gatherings. Families sit on curbs, squat on rooftops and perch on nearby rubble to watch excavators claw through concrete. They feed salvaged wood from shattered cupboards and shutters into campfires to ward off the winter chill and brew tea over the flames.
As they wait, rescue crews consult them to figure out how many people were in a given building when it toppled over like a Jenga tower, or where to bust through the roof to reach a missing woman’s bedroom.
When bodies are exhumed, often disfigured or decomposing, they stand by as body bags are briefly unzipped to identify relatives — by their faces, missing teeth, fungal toenails or earrings — so they can be laid to rest.
Many of the families are furious at the government and say they did not see rescue crews until two or three days after the quake, when the window for survivors to be saved was shrinking fast. Confusion followed, they said, as rescue crews, both Turkish and international, came and went, some lacking equipment to do the job, others leaving before it was finished.
As they waited, their hopes dimmed.
“First, we came thinking we could save them,” said Ibrahim Savas, Ms. Ulgen’s brother. “Then we thought maybe we could save them, but injured. Now we just hope to recover their bodies.”
Deadly Quake in Turkey and Syria
A 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 6, with its epicenter in Gaziantep, Turkey, has become one of the deadliest natural disasters of the century.
- Near the Epicenter: Amid scenes of utter devastation in the ancient Turkish city of Antakya, thousands are trying to make sense of an earthquake that left them with no home and no future.
- A Flawed Design: Residents of a new upscale tower in Turkey were told it was earthquake resistant, but the building collapsed anyway. A close look offers clues as to why.
- Humanitarian Aid: For the first time since the civil war in Syria began, the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has agreed to the cross-border delivery of humanitarian relief to opposition-held territories badly hit by the quake.
- A Hard-Hit Corner of Syria: As residents of one town, al-Atarib, continue to scour the rubble for personal possessions, they speak bitterly of feeling abandoned by the world.
He and two of his sisters who also lived elsewhere in Turkey had rushed to Adiyaman after the quake and had been amazed to find no one to search their sister’s building.
They soon learned that a rescue team had already worked on the building next door and left. The day after the quake, workers had retrieved the bodies of Yakup Tas, a member of Parliament for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, and members of his family, the state-run news media reported. But when Ms. Ulgen reached the site that evening, the rescuers were nowhere to be found.
“They came with everything they had for the lawmaker,” Ms. Ulgen said. “And then they left.”
A week later, the family was still waiting when rescuers laid three black body bags containing four bodies on the sidewalk nearby. A family that had been camped out next to them approached, hands over their noses and mouths, to glimpse the bodies, wailing at what they saw.
A half-hour later, the other family was gone, the fire that had kept them warm turned to ash, their vigil over. Ms. Ulgen and her relatives kept waiting.
At another site, relatives of the missing sat on bricks, boards and blankets as rescue teams dug in three spots for 12 bodies believed to remain in the ruins.
“We usually stay until 4 a.m., then we go to tents or cars nearby to sleep for two hours and come back,” said a soldier who was waiting for the remains of three relatives and gave only his first name, Yasin, in keeping with army protocol. “We don’t eat much.”
Workers carried a body bag from the rubble.
“Leyla,” a relative said, identifying the woman it contained, and sobs erupted from the crowd. A second body came shortly after.
Around Adiyaman, residents salvaged possessions from what remained of their homes: blankets, photo albums, rugs, a pair of jeans worn by a dead brother with a car key and a folding knife still in the pocket.
Near a public clock that had frozen in time at 4:17 a.m., the moment of the quake, men rummaging in a hole in the rubble pulled out dusty but otherwise intact bottles of liquor — more than three crates’ worth.
The building’s ground floor had housed his family’s liquor store, said Mustafa Gokhan Demir. They planned to clean up the bottles in hopes of selling them elsewhere.
“It’s all we have left,” he said.
As dusk fell, scores of workers from Turkish and international crews worked at another sprawling site, where multiple buildings had collapsed into one another, leaving mountains of wreckage. A group of Turkish miners surveyed wood supports over one hole to prevent cave-ins, a Bangladeshi man in red and gray camouflage jackhammered through a tiled floor. Groups from China and Sudan rested by campfires and two rescuers from Virginia looked on.
Petr Slachta, a member of a Czech team, said they had deployed sniffer dogs, thermal cameras, six-meter-long “snake” cameras and sensitive equipment to detect voices deep in the rubble. In about a week, they had found about 50 people, he said. Only three had been alive. He did not expect there to be many more.
Sitting by a fire in an oil drum near the rubble, Mehmet Tas, a construction engineer, said he had rushed to Adiyaman, his hometown, from Istanbul right after the quake. He had been camped out with his relatives since, waiting for his sister, her husband and his mother and the couple’s three grandchildren, ages 4, 5 and 6.
More than a week after the quake, only the children were still unaccounted for.
As men stoked fires to prepare for nightfall and the Czech team erected a glowing orb on a pole to light the rubble, Mr. Tas said he hoped some families would stay in the city to help rebuild and wondered when the schools would reopen.
People who left felt like “fish out of the sea” elsewhere, he said, and he said he hoped that someday the men would gather once again in the city’s coffee shops in the evening to swap news from their days.
But for now, all he could do was wait.
“I have three people in there,” he said, gesturing at the rubble. “They haven’t come out yet.”