She survived Turkey's deadly earthquake, but 4 months on, finding hope is 'difficult'

Three months after Özlem Ayna was rescued from the rubble left by a devastating earthquake in Adiyaman, Turkey, she still frequently feels trapped and has barely left the hospital.

Özlem Ayna spent more than 3 months in hospital after being pulled from rubble

CBC reporter reconnects with Turkish earthquake victim rescued live on air

4 months ago
Duration 6:46
CBC reporter Briar Stewart returns to Turkey after covering the aftermath of February's devastating earthquake in Antakya, where she witnessed the rescue of a woman from the rubble firsthand. Three months on, Özlem Ayna's body is beginning to heal. But healing the mental scars from the disaster may prove more challenging.

It took 4½ days for Özlem Ayna to be freed after a devastating earthquake left her pinned between her furniture and the concrete wreckage of her five-storey apartment building in Adiyaman, Turkey.

But three months on, she still frequently feels trapped and has barely left the hospital.

A person wears a cap that is covering bandages on their head.
Özlem Ayna was rescued 4½ days after being trapped in the rubble of her apartment building in Adiyaman, Turkey, following a devastating earthquake in February. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

"Sometimes, especially indoors, I feel like I can't breathe," she said. "There is a feeling of choking."

Ayna, 37, spoke with CBC News on May 10 near a hospital in Istanbul where she has been receiving medical treatment for her injuries caused by the earthquake and the depression that followed.

The 45-minute visit was only the second time Ayna had been out of the hospital since Feb. 10. 

The first time was only a few days before her interview with CBC. She went to a store to buy clothes because she lost all her belongings in the earthquake, but when she went into the small change room, she said she had a panic attack and left immediately. 

A person adjusts a bandage around their head.
Ayna says doctors initially thought the wounds to her head were superficial, but after consultation with a specialist in Istanbul, she needed several surgeries and skin grafts. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

"It's good that I had been rescued under the rubble … but sometimes I feel so exhausted. I feel so indifferent," she said through tears. 

Few survivors 

Ayna said she was one of three people rescued from the first three floors of her apartment building, which collapsed just after 4 a.m. on Feb. 6 during a 7.8-magnitude earthquake — the first of two to hit southeast Turkey and Syria over a six-hour period.

More than 50,000 people were killed, authorities have said, and three million people were displaced when buildings collapsed or were left severely damaged.

Ayna told CBC that she woke to her room crashing down around her and lay pinned between debris, shivering for four days without food and water until she heard the sound of rescuers looking for survivors. 

After crews realized she was alive in the rubble, they spent several hours trying to to delicately extract her from underneath slabs of concrete. They were aided by a 10-member search and rescue team from Burnaby, B.C. 

CBC News was at the site of the rescue and reported live on the risky operation. Among the concrete and twisted rebar that covered the ground, the news crew noticed a pink heart-shaped box with the name Özlem inscribed on it.

Firefighters and others working to rescue people trapped in a collapsed building stand in front of rubble.
Firefighters with a search and rescue team from Burnaby, B.C., stand in front of Ayna's collapsed apartment building on Feb. 10. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

It was used by the survivor crews were trying to rescue, but they didn't yet know her name. 

When Ayna was finally freed from the building, placed on a stretcher and put into a waiting ambulance, the rescue crews and crowd who had gathered to watch were jubilant. 

Two days after her rescue, CBC met with Ayna in a hospital in Diyarbakir, Turkey — one of three that she has been admitted to in recent months. 

Multiple surgeries 

Back then, doctors said her kidneys were damaged from being severely dehydrated, and that if she had been trapped for even a few more hours, she might not have made it. 

She and her mother, Gülten Ayna, spoke about how grateful they were that rescuers found her when they did. 

A person places their hand on the head of another person lying in a hospital bed.
Ayna lies in a hospital bed in Diyarkbakir, Turkey, on Feb. 12. Her mother, Gülten Ayna, left, didn't believe her daughter was alive until she saw her in the intensive care unit. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Ayna had cuts and bruises, including wounds on her scalp, which ended up needing much more medical attention. 

After seeing a specialist in Istanbul, doctors realized the cuts were deeper than originally thought and she underwent about a dozen surgeries and skin grafts. 

When Ayna spoke with CBC News, she wore a pink baseball cap, concealing the layers of bandages wrapped about her head. 

WATCH | Finding it hard to have hope:

An earthquake survivor struggles to find hope

4 months ago
Duration 1:59
Özlem Ayna has rarely left hospital since being rescued from the rubble of her collapsed apartment building in February.

She had been seeing a psychiatrist and put on an antidepressant, but said it had been making her nauseous. 

"Sometimes I think I should have hope, but it's very difficult for me. Maybe if I start a new life somewhere, this could be easier for me," she said. 

Ayna, who worked as a primary school teacher in the city of Adiyman, has no plans of returning there to live, but did go back on May 14 to cast her ballot in the country's presidential and parliamentary elections. 

Before making the trip, she told CBC that she was apprehensive about going, but wanted to face "the truth."

"On the one hand, it's the city that I worked in for nine years and I have memories. At the same time, it is the city where I had the worst time of my life."

A person sits at a table in a cafe.
Ayna sits in a café near the hospital she has been staying at in Istanbul. On the table in front of her are a photo and a message that CBC News delivered from the search and rescue crew from Burnaby, B.C., that helped free her from the rubble of her apartment building. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Despite her obvious trauma, Ayna is hopeful that moving to a new city and starting teaching again in the fall will give her a fresh start.

As her visit with CBC wrapped up and she prepared to head back to the hospital for another appointment, the crew passed along a care package from the Burnaby search and rescue team. 

It included a photo of the crew in front of her apartment building just after the rescue and a message written in English and Turkish that in part read that the team admired her "strength and resilience" and hope for her speedy recovery. 


Briar Stewart is a correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at or on Twitter @briarstewart

With files from Corinne Seminoff and Nida Kara