Hope for miracles among Turkey's ruins running out
Rescue efforts grimly turn to recovery in Adana, as bodies are pulled from pancaked buildings
At some point in practically every disaster, the moment arrives when any realistic hope of survival is lost and, to protect the lives of responders, dangerous rescue efforts have to transition to recovery.
For the Turkish teams labouring in the southern city of Adana, that point came early Wednesday afternoon.
"This is the third day. In the morning, we had hope. But now, we don't have," said Bahattin Ulug, as he and his team paused for a break and to absorb the grim reality that all of their frantic efforts over the past 48 hours were not going to produce any miracles.
Ulug was one of perhaps 150 rescuers who had spent all of their waking hours since Monday's earthquake atop the pile of pulverized concrete that had been a 12-storey apartment building in Adana's fashionable Güzelyali neighbourhood.
The debris from the building is highly unstable and dangerous for the rescue crews to climb on, without the benefit of ropes or other safety gear.
Large cranes and front-end loaders lift and shift huge concrete slabs that used to be the structural heart of the building — but any move could trigger more instability and jeopardize the rescuers.
So could an aftershock, of which there have been hundreds since the first 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit before dawn on Monday.
"Absolutely, it has been very difficult," said Ulug. "The situation near the top [of the building] is very bad — seeing dead bodies is terrible."
A crew from CBC News spent several hours Wednesday at the site, watching the rescue efforts, including the removal of several bodies that were brought out from the debris wrapped in blankets.
At several points, rescuers called for silence. Machinery, car engines, phones and anything else that made noise was turned off to give the teams on the debris a chance to hear if anyone was calling out to them.
No one was.
One neighbour told our crew the last time a person was pulled out of the rubble alive happened in the first hours after the collapse — a young boy. There's been no good news since.
When the first earthquake struck in those early-morning hours, the building didn't immediately topple and many residents had time to leave. But by mid-morning, a powerful aftershock brought it down.
Friends and neighbours estimate there were likely between 90 and 100 people still inside.
Indeed, police have also evacuated several other nearby buildings, fearing they too may easily come down.
'Nothing else to do'
In a taped-off area near to where ambulances pull up to take away the bodies, relatives of those missing and believed to be trapped inside held a silent vigil. They held hands and kept to themselves, shunning media interviews.
Occasionally, their silence was pierced by anguished cries after receiving the worst news.
As the afternoon progressed, the mood among those watching shifted as more bodies were removed — fuelled by the grim sense that those doing the searching had started to lose hope.
"There is nothing else to do," said Vedat Fettulahoglu, who lives nearby and came to see if there was any way to help.
"Things in our country are very bad. At least in Adana, the situation is a bit better, if you compare it to other cities."
It's a measure of the ferocity of the disaster that Adana, a city of two million people, having to deal with 20 collapsed buildings, is perhaps considered fortunate.
Turkey's disaster management agency is quoted as saying there have been 5,770 confirmed reports of collapsed buildings, along with another 6,000 that have not been verified, across the quake zone in southern Turkey.
Some of those watching the rescue told CBC News that a victim can survive under the rubble for three or four days without water — and until that time runs out, they refuse to believe the worst.
But on Wednesday, as hope faded for many, it was replaced by a new emotion — anger, that such an earthquake-prone area could have been so poorly prepared.
"The contractors who are stealing the raw material for construction and the mayors who let them do it are guilty," said Hazar Hasar, 22, who lost a close friend in the apartment block.
After a deadly earthquake 23 years ago that killed more than 17,000 people, the Turkish government brought in a levy to help deal with disaster mitigation and prevention.
Many people are now asking what that money was used for.
"We want honesty and transparency — they aren't just stealing the raw materials, but also the lives of people," said Hasar.
Late on Wednesday, Twitter appeared to go offline in most of Turkey — which some internet-monitoring groups suggested was an effort by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to clamp down on criticism of its disaster response.
On a tour of some of the hardest hit areas near the epicentre, Erdogan acknowledged problems but offered assurance logistics are improving.
"We had some problems in airports and roads but we are better today. We will be better tomorrow and later," he said.