It was just past 3 a.m. last Tuesday when Yuksel Er shuffled from his bedroom to extinguish the bathroom light. Er, a 40-year-old accountant, had to catch a ferry early that morning, and he was sleeping fitfully.
Then disaster struck. His apartment imploded, and for the next 97 hours and 33 minutes -- more than four days -- Er's world was reduced to this:
The heavy door that lay crosswise across his body, suspended 10 inches above his torso. The chest of drawers behind his right ear and the two small armchairs behind his left. The fragrant scent of his wife's soap collection. The searing thirst that parched his throat and chapped his lips. And, for a few hours, the fly that buzzed unseen around his head, nearly driving him mad.
Entombed in the ruins of his apartment by the massive earthquake that pulverized northwestern Turkey, Er lay on his back day and night in a pitch black space no bigger than a coffin. He could neither roll over nor sit up. He had no food, no water. He fantasized about drinking a Sprite but had nothing more than his own urine to wet his lips. He knew nothing of his family. He dreamed about heaven.
For 97 hours and 33 minutes, Er meditated and thought and prayed. And then his prayers were answered. Before dawn Saturday, he was pulled from beneath 15 feet of debris by a Turkish rescue team.
Er -- who lives in Yalova, just south of Istanbul on the eastern shore of the Sea of Marmara -- was among the last survivors to be pulled from the rubble of one of the most devastating earthquakes in Turkish history. Experts say that trapped people can survive for about four days, possibly a little longer, but only if they are unhurt and psychologically tough. After that, they usually succumb to dehydration.
Er had a few advantages. He is about 6-foot-2, just shy of 200 pounds and fairly athletic. He makes a point of walking everywhere and has never bothered to get a driver's license. Calm, resourceful and disciplined, he eats moderately and fasts every year during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He has a spiritual bent that appears to give him a quiet confidence.
"I never thought I wouldn't be found," he said, lying on his hospital bed today in the city of Bursa. At first, though, he didn't know what had hit him. He had just come from the bathroom when the quake struck with a deafening roar that lasted 45 seconds.
"It was awful," he said. "It was like a science fiction movie when a fireball rushes toward you and blows open your doors. I saw it coming clearly through the window in my son's room. It looked like a red fireball."
The front door of Er's third-floor apartment flew from its hinges, and he grabbed at it as the six-story building collapsed. He fell and revolved "like in a whirlwind, incredibly fast," then landed on the tile floor as the beams and debris crashed above the door and furniture that shielded him. Miraculously, he had just one injury; the nail on his left index finger was torn.
Engulfed in darkness and silence and trapped in his void, Er was sure Doomsday had arrived. But dawn broke a few hours later, and heavy equipment started plying the streets around the rubble of his apartment. Er could hear it, and he realized the world had not ended.
During the day, he whistled and pounded on the wall to try to attract attention, but it was in vain. He shouted in frustration. At one point, he had a sensation of wind blowing, until he realized with a start that it was his own breath. As the days passed, he kept quiet to conserve his energy.
He kept track of time by the muezzin's call to prayer from a nearby mosque and by the sounds of machinery in the street. When the street noise faded and his crypt grew cooler, Er understood it must be night, and he slept. When it grew hot, he knew it was midafternoon.
After a full day, his legs and hips grew numb. But his arms were free, and as reached out in the darkness he felt a steel pipe above him. Grabbing hold of that, he could lift himself a few inches, just enough to allow blood to circulate in his lower limbs and restore sensation.
"That helped a lot, it made me realize I could last a while in there," he said.
For much of the time, he was alone with his thoughts. He thought of his last meal late Monday, of okra and yogurt. His hunger peaked, then faded but not before he briefly considered eating his wife's soap. He thought of his family and friends. He thought ruefully of the stern scolding he had given his 13-year-old son Eser, for monopolizing the family computer for six hours the night before the quake, "chatting" in English with foreign pals.
On the fourth day, he thought, or rather obsessed, about the fly that had begun buzzing around his face. And then, around 1 a.m. Saturday, he heard the sound of digging, suddenly closer than any he'd heard before.
"Is anyone in there?" came the voice. It was his cousin. When Er answered, his cousin ran for help, and returned with Er's son, who had been pulled from the wreckage the day after the quake. "He said, `Dad, I'll never make you angry again.' And I told him it didn't matter because everything would be different when I got out of the rubble."
Thrilled at the prospect of deliverance, Er's spirits soared. "It was an incredible moment," he said. "I felt strong enough at that moment to spend another 97 hours inside."
The rescue team arrived minutes later and immediately called to Er to buck up his spirits. He'd be free in 30 minutes, the team leader shouted. In the event, it took 3 1/2 hours to pull Er out through narrow, jagged apertures and over shards of glass and debris. The ordeal left his legs covered with cuts and scratches.
"I almost gave up during the rescue," he said. "At one point, I just waved my hand and said, `I'm staying in here.' "
When he emerged from the ruins at 4:35 a.m., head first and crawling, hundreds of people were waiting for him. When they saw he could walk they cheered.
"The first thing I wanted to do was rush down to the sea and have a good wash -- swim and a long drink of water at the same time," said Er. "I could have murdered for even one drop of water."
Today, the elation of his rescue has faded somewhat. He learned of the deaths of his wife and daughter as he listened to his son being interviewed on television Saturday night. "I've lost my mother, but at least I have my father," he said.
He is bruised and weak, and when he gestures with his arm he cannot hold it for more than a moment. When he walks to the bathroom outside his hospital room, it is with the shuffle of a man of 80, not 40.
"I'm starting a second life," said Er, surrounded by relatives and friends at the hospital. "I'm just going to try to make the most of it. I want to deserve a happy life with the people I love."
With that, Er wept.