Woman trapped in earthquake rubble felt like she was 'born again' during rescue

As Özlem Ayna lay pinned in rubble underneath a wardrobe, she could hear voices and the sound of a dog searching through her apartment building that had collapsed during an earthquake more than four days before in the southeastern Turkish city of Adiyaman.

Canadian crew among rescuers helping at collapsed apartment building in Turkey

Turkish woman survives 5 days trapped under earthquake rubble

4 months ago
Duration 2:21
A woman in Turkey whose rescue was captured by a CBC News camera is now recovering in hospital after being trapped under earthquake rubble for nearly five days. Her family is grateful, and her doctors say she was rescued just in time.

As Özlem Ayna, 37, lay pinned in the rubble underneath her bedroom wardrobe, she could hear voices and the sound of a dog searching through her five-storey apartment building.

The building in the southeastern Turkish city of Adiyaman crashed down all around her in the early moments of the first of two earthquakes that struck parts of Turkey and Syria early last week. 

For hours, she screamed for help, yelling "save me" and trying to be as loud as she could even though her mouth was parched and caked with a layer of debris.

When she heard rescuers yell for silence, she shouted "shut up," too, because as the hours and days passed, she was frustrated and losing hope that anyone would find her. 

"I was screaming too loud from time to time. I got hoarse," she told CBC in an interview from her hospital bed in Diyarbakir, a Turkish city 190 kilometres east of her home in Adiyaman. 

"I lost my hope."

WATCH | Earthquake survivor describes the moment she was found:

Turkish earthquake survivor describes moment she was found

4 months ago
Duration 0:45
The CBC's Briar Stewart in Diyarbakir, Turkey speaks to Özlem Ayna, who survived five days under her crushed apartment building before she was rescued after the earthquake.

She said rescuers finally heard her after a couple of days when she started banging on a rock, and that kicked off an international effort to free her. 

CBC News witnessed and broadcast her rescue on Friday, 4½ days after the earthquake that left her entombed in her first-floor apartment. 

The rescue came six hours after Turkish crews reached her, carefully breaking through the mangled concrete and rebar to get to her. 

"I held [a rescuer's] hand so hard," she said. "He said: 'Calm down, we will save you.' 

"It was like I was born again."

Crew from B.C. assists

A 10-member crew from Burnaby, B.C.'s urban search and rescue team assisted on the ground by providing guidance and specialized equipment like a camera that could extend into the rubble and manoeuvre around the wreckage to pinpoint her exact location. 

Ayna, a primary school teacher, has been left bruised and suffering from kidney damage as a result of dehydration, but the head nurse of Dicle University Hospital in Diyarkabir believes she will recover and be discharged within a week. 

A woman wearing purple scrubs and a black cardigan smiles and crosses her arms in front of her chest. She smiles as she poses for a photo while standing in front of a glass door. A hospital hallway is seen to the right.
Head nurse Yildiz Ok Orak is overseeing the care of earthquake survivor Özlem Ayna at the Dicle University Hospital in Diyarbakir, Turkey. They are monitoring her kidney function but say she will be released from hospital in about a week. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

"if she had been removed [from the rubble] a few hours later, she would have lost even more kidney function," said Yildiz Ok Orak. 

Ayna is on a ward with 22 people who were pulled out of some of the more than 24,000 buildings that collapsed or were heavily damaged in Turkey's earthquakes. 

As the number of dead climbs to more than 30,000, Orak said the medical staff are no longer following the updates on the television news.

"We're giving all our energy to the treatment of the patients we have right now."

Building fell within seconds

Ayna and her family are overjoyed by her survival, but the happinesses is numbed by the discovery that 80 per cent of the residents in her building were killed in the quakes. 

When the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck shortly after 4 a.m. on Feb. 6, Ayna said, the violent shaking brought down her apartment within seconds. 

She said when she opened her eyes in her bed, a wardrobe fell on her right arm and then a column came crashing down.

WATCH | A woman is rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building:

Watch the moment a woman is rescued from rubble in Turkey

4 months ago
Duration 4:04
CBC News reporter Briar Stewart is at the scene as rescue crews, with help from a Canadian team, extract a woman trapped for days under a collapsed building in Adiyaman, Turkey.

She lay trapped in the freezing cold in her pyjamas, at times shaking out of control, with nothing to do but wait and try to survive. 

She told CBC News that her thirst was driving her to madness. She spoke about dreaming that if she were free, she would set up water fountains all around the community so no one would go without water. 

After a while, when she could no longer produce saliva or swallow, she tried to lie as still as possible in order to preserve energy, but when the rescuers returned, she resumed yelling. 

Trying to make contact

On Friday morning, after the rescuers discovered she was there and alive, they tried to make contact with her. 

They propped up logs of wood to try to stabilize the concrete and prevent the floors from collapsing on the crew members. 

A rescue worker wearing an orange jumpsuit and yellow helmet searches a wall of concrete, mixed with wires, metal and people's belongings.
A rescue worker checks a collapsed building in Adiyaman, Turkey, on Saturday. (Emrah Gurel/The Associated Press)

The searchers crawled through and eventually were able to reach her location, which was about seven metres back from the edge of the wreckage. 

She said when she saw the group of men, they had tears in their eyes. 

They eventually passed her food and water through a small hole and kept speaking with her to keep her spirits up and keep her awake while they tried to get her out. 

The CBC News crew watched as the Turkish rescuers struggled to extricate her because they didn't have access to a lift to get the wardrobe off of her. 

Coming up from below

Eventually they went underneath the rubble to try to pull her out from below. 

As the crew worked, dozens of residents from Adiyaman watched, including at least one of Ayna's relatives. 

In the debris scattered around the building lay a heart-shaped box that CBC news photographed at the time. 

A pink heart-shaped box, painted with a pink, white and green floral pattern on the edges of the heart, lays nestled among concrete rubble. It bears the name 'Özlem' in white block letters.
Amongst the rubble of a collapsed building in Adiyaman, this pink heart-shaped wooden box was spotted by CBC camera operator Dmitry Kozlov while he was awaiting the dramatic rescue of a woman. When CBC News later learned her identity, Özlem Ayna, the team wondered if the item was connected to her. Her family has since confirmed Özlem used this box to hold her phone chargers. (Dmitry Kozlov/CBC)

It was only afterwards that the crew discovered the name "Özlem" was printed on the box and it belonged to the women the crews were rescuing. 

When she was pulled out in front of a jubilant crowd, she was wrapped in a blanket, placed on a stretcher and taken to the hospital. 

Her mother, Gülten Ayna, didn't truly believe her daughter was alive until she saw her face in the intensive care unit. 

Mother stays by her side

After the earthquake, she had frantically travelled 180 kilometres from her home in Gaziantep to see her daughter's apartment building.

When she saw that the lower floors had completely collapsed and the front facade from the upper floors had crumbled away, she thought her daughter was likely dead. 

Her mother now clutches her hand and barely leaves her hospital bedside while speaking about how she believes her daughter has been reborn. 

Gülten Anya watched the CBC News video of her daughter's rescue. 

A woman with dark hair lies in a hospital bed, with a white blanket with blue-green stripes and circular logos pulled up to her neck. Next to her sits another woman, wearing a green shirt and a black, yellow and orange headscarf. The two hold hands as they look toward someone standing outside the photos frame.
Gülten Ayna, left, comforts her daughter, Özlem Ayna, who was pulled from the rubble of her apartment building in Adiyaman, Turkey, on Friday. Gülten Ayna says she's so happy her daughter is alive. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Ayna's family showed the video to her, but she says she could only watch half of it as she was crying so much. 

Both Ayna and her mother spoke about how grateful they are to the rescuers, including the team from Canada. 

"Something occurs and someone from the other edge of the world comes and rescues you," said Ayna. 

"I cannot describe this moment. I think it is humanity."


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 and Arzu Efeoğlu