A handful of highly trained specialists clustered around a modest-sized aperture from which the long-anticipated glimpse of arms and legs and a head came as a sudden, uplifting thrill. Then, a man with a mustache, standing slightly back from the action, suddenly beamed and exclaimed in a soft voice: "Aww-right!"
That man was Capt. Dan Bickham, a shrewd and drawling 32-year veteran of the Fairfax County Fire Department, who rushed to Turkey overnight Wednesday with a team of 76 rescue experts and went into action this morning with 30 tons of equipment, no sleep and, possibly, something to prove.
Bickham and Fairfax County's urban rescue squad, the A-team of American disaster response specialists, were in Nairobi after the embassy bombing last summer and in Oklahoma City in 1995 when the federal building there was destroyed. In both places they dug bodies from the rubble and went home, having done their duty but dejected nonetheless.
Today, amid the tragedy and devastation of Turkey's massive earthquake, here in this suburb of Izmit near the epicenter, the Fairfax team did what it came to do: save lives.
It saved the life of a wiry, frightened, 7-year-old brown-eyed boy who survived because he was on the bottom half of a double-bunk bed that acted as a protective shield when his apartment building collapsed.
It saved the life of a vivacious 24-year-old woman in surprisingly high spirits who joked with her rescuers as they chipped and sawed and shoveled their way through the rubble for 4 1/2 hours to reach her.
And it saved the life of Ayse Cesen, 43, whose brother had brought a coffin to collect her body this afternoon from the twisted pile of ruins where she once lived on the third floor.
From somewhere beneath the rubble, where he expected to find only a body, Cesen's brother heard a voice. The voice was muffled and diminished but it was Cesen's all right, 60 hours after she had been entombed by the quake. She called out after a backhoe began digging at the debris of a decimated apartment blocks -- not to rescue bodies, but to excavate them.
Cesen's brother, waiting with the coffin, heard her, and he called to the backhoe operator to stop, then went looking for someone to dig out his sister.
Less than a mile away, the Fairfax team had set up its base in an empty lot. In Derince, 50 miles east of Istanbul, hundreds of cheaply made apartment blocs have been reduced to treacherous heaps of reinforced concrete and twisted rods of metal. A pall has hung over the town since the quake hit at 3:02 a.m. Tuesday, igniting a gigantic oil fire at a refinery a couple of miles away.
A unit of the Fairfax team rushed to Cesen's building equipped with an astonishing array of tools and gadgetry, including a listening device so sensitive that it can detect a heartbeat, a gasp or a person drawing air underground at some distance.
There was no need for the device. Cesen's voice was faint but clear.
It came from the depths of the ruins, at the base of a 10-foot-deep pit of rubble that channeled back to a tiny opening no bigger than a pillow, and clogged with shards of debris.
In yellow hard hats equipped with miners' head lanterns, the firefighters clambered down into the pit and began to work on the opening. Within minutes, Cesen could see the rescuers' flashlights. And shortly, they could glimpse her too: a heavy-set woman eight feet back into the rubble, lying in a fetal position behind a twisted queen-sized mattress, blinking, frightened and clinging to life in a void not much larger than a coffin.
But Capt. Dewey Perks, a Fairfax rescuer directing traffic above them at the lip of the pit, did not like what he saw: ragged chunks of concrete, some as small as a book, some as large as a bed, dangling above his team of rescuers, attached to the ruins by steel reinforcing rods.
"We're worried about those overhangers," said Perks, a 28-year veteran, calm and focused, eyeing the concrete warily as he spoke. "We call them widow-makers."
The work was agonizingly slow, an exercise closer in spirit to archaeology than engineering. A rescuer on his belly inched into the space, gradually spading, chipping and clearing away the rubble, widening and deepening the aperture little by little. The tools were small, the progress deliberate and incremental. Any false move, any slight mistake, and the tons of debris above Cesen could shift and flatten, crushing her and her rescuers, too.
"You don't want your sand castle to come down," said Perks, still watching the widow-makers. "It's like a sand castle at the beach -- you have to be careful you don't undermine it.
"You have to respect every one of these things every time you walk up to it. And you have to realize the building's in charge. We're just here to play with it a little while. . . . If we can make one family happy today, we've had a pretty good day. If we can make a lot of families happy, that's what we shoot for."
Two hours into the work, a large crowd of Turks had gathered to watch, perched on the crumbling walls and slabs of concrete surrounding the site. The heat of the day was starting to ease, but not the tension.
Suddenly, Bickham, the team leader who had arrived to relieve Perks, detected movement in the building: a slight shudder, a chilling vibration, the telltale wobble of an aftershock. Directly above where his men lay sprawled at the widening aperture, a huge concrete pillar that hung suspended like a guillotine was shaking.
"Clear out!" bellowed Bickham. "Get back!"
The men scrambled away from the building's ruined hulk, and everyone stared, wide-eyed and aghast. Twenty feet above, at the peak of the hillock of rubble, a desk fell over on its side. From the void inside the rubble, Cesen cried out.
A half-minute passed. Bickham's team exhaled -- and went back to work.
The hole was larger now, and a rescuer on his belly was wriggling in farther and farther. From her concrete thicket, Cesen spoke to a Turkish interpreter who knelt just outside the opening. Her back hurt, her shoulder hurt, and she had diarrhea.
"Ayse! Just wait! The man will pull you out, so help him!" said the interpreter.
But Ayse could not help. She could barely move.
The rescuers chipped and burrowed some more. And at last, they reached her. And pulled.
Cesen emerged at 7:19 p.m., ashen-faced and silent, her hair and cheeks caked in dust. She might have survived another day, but maybe not; the limits of endurance for most adults so trapped is about 96 hours. She had lain in her void for 64 hours 17 minutes. Her son and husband had died very near her when the temblor struck early Tuesday.
"It's incredible, just great, I'm on top of the world," said John Mayers, a Fairfax rescuer who helped pull Cesen out.
Slightly away from the hubbub, Bickham let out his version of a victory whoop.
"Aww-right!" he said.
Most Destructive Quakes
The quake that struck northwestern Turkey on Tuesday may be the 14th most destructive this century. Here is a comparison:
Area hit Date Magnitude Death toll
Tangshan, China July 28, '76 7.8 240,000
Yokohama, Japan Sept. 1, '23 8.3 200,000
Gansu, China Dec. 16, '20 8.6 100,000
Northern Peru May 31, '70 7.7 70,000
Northwestern Iran June 21, '90 7.3 50,000
Erzincan, Turkey Dec. 26, '39 7.9 33,000
Chillan, Chile Jan. 24, '39 8.3 28,000
Northeastern Iran Sept. 16, '78 6.9 25,000
Northwestern Armenia Dec. 7, '88 6.9 25,000
Guatemala Feb. 4, '76 7.5 22,780
Valparaiso, Chile Aug. 16, '06 8.6 20,000
Central Mexico Sept. 19, '85 8.1 9,500+
Northwestern Turkey Aug. 17, '99 7.4 7,000+
San Francisco April. 18, '06 8.3 2,500
SOURCE: Associated Press