Hope fades for families in Turkey as relief turns into recovery

KAHRAMANMARAS, Turkey (AP) — Precious hours have turned into tense days in earthquake-stricken southern Turkey as fewer people are pulled alive from the rubble. As family members watch rescuers move on to the recovery, they’re also faced with a terrible truth: it’s unlikely they’ll ever be reunited with their missing loved ones.

In Nurdagi, a town of about 40,000 nestled among snow-capped mountains about 35 miles (56 kilometers) from the quake’s epicenter, crowds of spectators — mostly family members of those trapped inside — watched on Thursday as heavy machinery crashing into a building that had collapsed, its floors rippling with little more than a few inches in between.

Mehmet Yilmaz, 67, watched from a distance as bulldozers and other demolition equipment began to demolish what was left of the building in which six members of his family were trapped, including three babies and a three-month-old baby.

Here the operation had become not one of salvage, but one of demolition.

“There is no hope. We can’t give up our hope in God, but they entered the building with listening devices and dogs and there was nothing,” Yilmaz said. He hasn’t moved from his hopeful perch beside the building for three days.

He estimated around 80 people were still trapped inside the collapsed structure, but said he didn’t believe any of them would be recovered alive.

“The building looks like piles of paper and cardboard, the fifth floor and the first floor collided in one,” he said grimly, his eyes filled with resignation.

There is hardly a building left in Nurdagi that has not suffered serious damage. In those where it was believed there might still be survivors, workers used picks, jackhammers and shovels to carefully dent chunks of concrete and twisted rebar knots in hopes of discovering a sign of life. In other buildings, like the one where Yilmaz’s family was trapped, it was more about recovery.

In Kahramanmaras, the city closest to the earthquake’s epicenter, workers continued to search for survivors on Thursday, but most of their finds involved the dead. Standing atop a high mound of debris, three men squeezed through a crevice and pulled out a body wrapped in a red blanket, bare feet sticking out.

The body was placed in the bucket of a backhoe loader and slowly lowered to the ground.

A rescuer was heard to say that his psychological state was declining after days of searching and that the smell of death in the rubble was becoming unbearable.

Nearby, an indoor sports hall serves as a makeshift morgue to house and identify bodies recovered from the rubble. On the floor of the basketball court-sized room lay dozens of bodies wrapped in black blankets or shrouds, at least one of which appeared to be the tiny body of a five- or six-year-old boy.

At the entrance to the morgue, a man wept loudly over a black body bag lying next to another in the bed of a small truck.

“I’m 70! God should have taken me, not my son!” he cried.

Erdal Usta, an assistant provincial prosecutor, said the bodies pulled from the rubble are brought into the building and catalogued, and await identification by relatives who can then transport them to be buried.

A woman, who declined to reveal her name, said she had taken her father-in-law’s body to the morgue to be formally registered as deceased. She and her family, she said, had pulled the man out of the rubble with their own hands, but he had been crushed in the collapse.

In Nurdagi, 67-year-old Mehmet Nasir Dusan sat in a chair and watched as the remains of a 9-story building were torn down by excavators into billowing clouds of dust. He said he also had no hope of being reunited with his five family members trapped under the rubble.

Still, she said, recovering their bodies would bring some solace.

“We will not leave this site until we can recover their bodies, even if it takes ten days,” he said. “My family is broken now.”

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