Cover Story

Keeping count

In a calamity of biblical proportions, numbers are one way to impose order. For Turkey's earthquake survivors, however, the numbers hold no solace. As the death toll in the 60-mile quake zone approaches 20,000, the ones left behind see only numberless days of suffering ahead.

Issue: "Turkey: A terrible toll," Sept. 4, 1999

in Adapazari, Turkey - At the gates of State Hospital, chaos appears to rule. Ambulances squawk as they puncture a lane through the logjam of bulldozing equipment, dumptrucks, and pedestrians. MASH-unit tents fill one sidewalk, treating the dehydrated, the injured, the elderly, and the very young. Family members wait and smoke. At four tractor-trailers parked nearby, the stacking of the dead continues. Medics won't say how many are there (the odor says not a few) or when the bodies will be disposed of. Some corpses already have been ferried, in trucks with open beds, to unmarked graves in a cemetery north of town. This is the aftermath of Aug. 17, a day that will live in infamy, with 3,000 dead in Adapazari alone, after one of the most powerful earthquakes this century rumbled through populous northwestern Turkey. And this is just the end of the beginning; the Turkish government last week asked the UN to help it locate 45,000 body bags. Then, days later, the government "reassesed its need." Said UN spokesman Michael Elmquist: "They have already received 15,000 to 20,000 body bags and said they did not need any more." One week after the quake, the world's front pages have gone on to other matters, but the Marmara region is no closer to making peace with the upheaval. Mothers shed tears openly on street corners. Fathers without jobs scrape pathetic moats around temporary shelters as torrential rains come down. In hospitals, survivors pulled from the rubble risk "crush syndrome"-a blood poisoning that leads rapidly to kidney failure and death. "Save our souls," blares one newspaper headline. As search teams and much of the foreign press go home, numbed by the staggering toll of casualties, the workers who stay behind continue to operate on high alert. Even as "experts" claim there can be no more survivors, Japanese Red Cross, one private French rescue team, and volunteer doctors from Istanbul race against time in Adapazari, following up on every report of life beneath the rubble. In the city center, a team from the private, all-volunteer French group, Sauventeurs Securistes Amandinois, works for eight hours, without a break, to find a man rumored to be trapped in a pancaked apartment house. The search has all the earmarks of so many other failed explorations until shortly after lunchtime, when a team member thinks he hears a voice through the fiber-optic listening cable strung into the building. The crowd of neighbors hushes on demand as workers quickly scramble into a 12-inch-wide crack between concrete slabs at the base of the building. Searching for more signs of life, crews flank the building, making delicate probes with jackhammers and pickaxes, combing the building's lower reaches with a yellow Lab detector dog. No architectural plans can be found. Survivors from the building are called over to testify to the configuration of the basement and first floor, both now interred below street level. A relative in black chador, on the scene earlier, disappears as the hours pass. By late afternoon crew members acknowledge that "time is running out." Each team that tunnels into the bowels of the building reports it shifting down and closing in, inch by inch. Just after 5 p.m., with no more sign of life, the search is abandoned. From the beginning, search and rescue has been hindered by the extent of the devastation and its bewildering variety. In Izmit, damaged buildings crumple and fall into sandy piles of rubble. In Adapazari, multi-story apartments are sandwiched into the ground or twisted into surreal angles, even turned completely onto their sides. At the resort town of Yalova on the coast, many seafront dwellings look normal, at a distance. "Outside it looks OK, right?" says Mehmet Bilge of his own family's summer home. "Only problem: That is the second floor. The first floor is"-he smacks his hands together-"gone." The homeless include those who escaped destroyed houses and also dwellings that are now simply structurally compromised. Many buildings that remain standing look sound. But telltale shards of broken earth or heaved walkways run toward their foundations. Inside, furnishings are well shaken and upended, china and mementos smashed. No one will return to these homes to live. Those who escaped with just their lives are distinctive: One week after the quake shook them awake at 3 a.m., many are living on the streets in their pajamas. Some raced outside that sultry night wearing only underwear. They borrowed T-shirts and sweatpants from neighbors or relatives. They are labeled, too, by head injuries. Survivors with bandaged foreheads or sutured eyebrows work to set up tents; a lamp or a picture frame fell on them in their sleep. Nemet Kurçan, a mother setting up housekeeping in a military-issue tent, has heavy purple contusions beneath her eyes where a wall fell on her in bed. She laughs about having her home for an alarm clock. "It saved me," she tells WORLD. Dilek Golak, a 19-year-old university student, says a lamp blow to the ear woke her up. She spent frantic seconds trying to get her parents out of a swaying bedroom. Both were trapped by an armoire that fell across the door until her father was able to move it. Everyone in the building escaped unharmed. But across the street-where Dilek called just before bedtime to friends drinking tea on a balcony-a dozen people died. "If I did not believe in God," said Dilek, "I would not know how we survived." Adapazari is a conservative Muslim enclave, where many women keep their heads covered and mosques, with minarets toppled and roofs collapsed, continue to be full of praying men. Bible distribution and most Christian activities are seriously scorned. The survivors WORLD spoke with were quick to attribute the earthquake to Allah. This severe mercy, they said, had done nothing to change that way of thinking. Ceyda Güres, who escaped a toppled building with her husband in the worst-hit area of Adapazari, said, "Everybody is Muslim, but they don't all do their duties for God. We want them to understand God's existence and judgment. Now we will try to do better for God." While Mrs. Güres and her extended family live out of one car, doing better is a bar that looks too high to cross. Like many families, hers will face uncompensated losses because they do not have insurance (only about 10 percent of Turkish homeowners do). Lack of coordinated effort by the government and the military, combined with the magnitude of the damage, hinder every recovery effort. A crisis center in Ankara, the capital, is 200 miles from the quake zone, and most medical and relief workers WORLD speaks to do not know of it. Doctors are working 40 hours without sleep and barely staying ahead of sanitation problems and life-threatening injuries. They are desperate for blood donations, yet Minister of Health Osman Durmas turned away Greek and American blood banks. Blankets, shoes, and socks are high-demand items, but volunteers have a hard time getting them to areas most in need. Turkey has no National Guard equivalent, but it does have a large army. The military has done little to provide safety and safe passage. Along one freeway, traffic into Adapazari backed up for 20 miles. Convoys of supplies, onlookers, and commuters were halted by construction to repair quake fissures across the pavement and to remove one overpass that collapsed in the quake. Bottlenecks along the roads to Izmit near the quake's epicenter were even longer. Meanwhile, danger continues. Families are returning to tilting houses to recover necessities and treasured Turkish rugs, risking a collapse. World Relief president Clive Calver, touring the epicenter at Gölcük, was asked to assist in one house search. He hesitated, and, minutes later, the building folded behind him. For now, most help is local. Hilton Hotels and other chains in the seacoast area have set up feeding stations in Gölcük and Izmit. Local restaurants in Adapazari hand out beans and rice. One single-minded resident in a small truck travels up and down rubble-lined streets and wooded areas where tent cities are growing. He hands out large plastic garbage bags and shouts through a megaphone, "What did you do for Turkey today?" One week into the disaster, World Relief was the only Christian organization with a visible presence in the quake zone. Mr. Calver, who toured the area on Aug. 23, said it was both the worst natural disaster he had seen and one of the most poorly run recoveries. "The apostle Paul struggled with the Turks, so why shouldn't we?" he said.

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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