From the television set in Arlington the Turks cannot smell the stench, but they can certainly feel the pain.
The reporter from the Turkish channel Star wears a paper mask as he walks among the plastic-wrapped bodies laid on the ice of an Izmit rink, near the epicenter of the quake. Officials are photographing the bodies in case they must be buried before they are identified.
The people gathered at Atilla's restaurant on Columbia Pike, people who have been coming every night to watch their homeland suffocate and stagger, see this latest fragment of misery and shake their heads.
Oh my god, they mumble. Oh my god.
The three televisions mounted on the walls here normally show soccer and American movies dubbed into Turkish. Now they beam images of cranes dragging rubble, mothers wailing, nuns carrying intravenous bags for babies. They show the Turks places they know, in towns where they've lived, crushed to bits.
The immense earthquake struck northwestern Turkey early Tuesday--8 p.m. Monday Eastern time--and by now many of the 8,000 or so people of Turkish descent who live in the Washington area have heard from home. Most of the people at Atilla's got the news they wanted: We're fine.
But not Huseyin Once. Once, 46, sits alone at a table for two and stares at the television. He has been watching all week.
The plate of honeydew melon before him--his dinner--is glistening and ripe, but Once can't eat it. He smokes, he sips his anise drink, but he can't eat. He can't work, either; with his hometown torn apart, who can stand at a table on a D.C. sidewalk and talk tourists into buying T-shirts?
"I'm so nervous I can't work," he says in Turkish.
His village, Caybasiyenkoy, was destroyed by the quake. His immediate family is safe, but uncles, aunts, nieces are dead. Entire families of five, six--crushed to death at once. "Thirty-six people died in the town," Once says. "I knew almost everybody."
On the news, subtitles flash commentaries such as Yardim et Bize Yarabbi! (God help us!) Newscasters ask why, what now? The talking heads say they are not sure.
"All of these professors," says Zeki Cece, who owns the market next door to the restaurant. "I don't know where they were before the earthquake."
There are small sparks of promise. Men mumble relief when it is reported that a refinery fire is being extinguished. There is pride from these immigrants at any mention of the U.S. assistance. "God bless America," said Serkiz Cakir, 36, a mechanic from Silver Spring. "It's terrible, it's terrible. But maybe everyone there sees America is not so bad."
But mostly, the news is bad and worse. Every time the death toll is revised--and this happens often, 5,000 . . . 6,000 . . . 7,000--there is "Oh my god" again. One after another aftershock is announced, more flattened buildings are shown next to a few sturdy structures that remain. Cece says, "I'm gonna kill all the builders."
The men here are concerned about the aftershocks because their mothers, their sisters, their aunts and nephews are dragging blankets onto the streets, away from buildings, and sleeping there. "Nobody knows when it's going to end," Cece says.
The men here feel helpless. Even if you could afford $1,300 to fly to Istanbul, what to do then? Could you hop off the plane and make things better, dig life from under the rubble? No, says Zulkuf Gezgic, who owns Atilla's.
"It's dangerous," Gezgic says. "You need a team to help. You cannot help with just your hands."
Instead, says Ibrahim Demircan, 41, a painter from Falls Church, "We're going to donate as much as we can."
Instead, they try, dozens of times a day, to call. And they wait for the phone to ring.
Gezgic's mother finally called him Wednesday night. Her eight-story building was fine, so are his sisters, his cousins. But the building next door is crumbled. "Other people we know--they're gone."
People who can't get through to relatives can call the Turkish Embassy at 202-617-6700, where phones are staffed 24 hours a day. The embassy's Web site, www.turkey.org, offers news reports, official statements and information about where to send money.
For those searching for family, the embassy can only sometimes help. "As you imagine," said spokesman Namik Tan, "in some of the areas the priority is saving lives--nothing but saving lives." No time to catalogue the dead.
In places like Atilla's, some people come because they always come; some, like Once, don't know how else to deal with the grief.
"It makes me nervous to watch this on TV," he says, his square face set in sadness, "but what can I do? What can I do, here or there?"