In a Turkish town shattered by the earthquake, death is everywhere

Rescuers search through the rubble in Nurdagi, Turkey, on Tuesday. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)
6 min

NURDAGI, Turkey — In a red blanket, Abdurahman Gencay cradled his toddler, Huri, as he walked from door to door and person to person at the local hospital, trying to find someone to bring her home, to their village, to be buried.

Gencay asked a man driving an electric repair van for a ride, but the car had no fuel, the man said. He asked a paramedic for help, but he was told, politely, that the medic’s duty was to save the living.

“Isn’t this your duty?” Gencay said, then sagged in a small garden, weighing his options. Finally, he walked off with his daughter toward Nurdagi, a town stricken like so many in Turkey after Monday’s earthquakes and filled with ambulances and grief and everywhere, the dead.

The death toll in Turkey alone rose to nearly 5,900 Tuesday, the government said, with little indication the country was nearing a final count. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency across 10 affected regions, as the sprawl of devastation stretching across southern and eastern Turkey was coming into view, marked by buckled roads, crippled bridges and a ceaseless parade of flattened structures, from gas stations to high-rise apartment blocks.

Nurdagi, a town of 40,000 in the shadow of snow-capped mountains, shared the fate of Turkey’s worst-impacted towns and cities, condemned by their location near the epicenter or along the earthquake’s fault line. In those places, whole districts have collapsed into rubble, and rescue workers and residents are struggling to make sense of the loss.

Here, the dead were lined up outside the hospital, in body bags or blankets, dozens of them, because the morgue was full, a policeman said. They were carried out of homes that had collapsed on top of them, trailed by the sound of wailing relatives.

Some of the deaths were presumed, given all the time that had passed since the earthquake razed whole neighborhoods, crippling the buildings that did not fall. As hope for the missing dissolved, there were bursts of sorrow and anger, in terrible scenes that played out on what seemed like every block.

The anguish started right at the entrance to town, where a man yelled at drivers trying to cut a long line of cars and trucks, saying they were impeding the passage of ambulances. “How would you feel if your family was under rubble?” he fumed. A few blocks away, rescue workers dug through the wreckage of several large buildings that had collapsed, side by side, including a hotel that residents said was full of guests, a seven-story apartment building and a residential building that had housed female teachers.

Ridvan Capak, 27, was inside the apartment block before it fell. As it shook, he made eye contact with his sister and reached for her, he said. But then they were apart, as the building seemed to topple and he found himself in what he called an “empty space” in the rubble.

A few hours later, he heard voices, and 21 hours after he was buried, rescuers pulled him out.

Now he was back on the mound, wearing yellow rain boots, his lips scarred black from his ordeal, digging for his sister and her family, the task growing more grim with each hour.

A few blocks up the road, near a stretch of damaged shops, a man who gave his first name, Okkus, said five family members were trapped in a nearby building. He had no idea whether they were still alive. The rescue teams had “come late,” he said, the first ones not arriving in Nurdagi until early Monday evening.

“We have been looking after ourselves,” he said.

As the town waited for help, several members of Zaki Moussa’s family died in a building that housed Syrian families from Aleppo. There were more than 1,000 Syrian families in Nurdagi, he said, estimating that there would be hundreds of Syrians among the dead.

As he spoke, a few blocks away, a woman with dyed blonde hair ran into an intersection, frantic, gesturing for a group of soldiers to follow her, to save a child she thought might be alive under a large building. Half an hour later, the woman was sitting on a curb, holding what looked like a child’s pillow, blue and shaped like a cloud. The soldiers sat nearby.

The bodies of two children had been pulled out of the building, one of the soldiers said, adding: “It will be difficult to get someone out after this hour.” The woman beat at the pillow and screamed.

“I wasn’t able to save him,” she said. Another ambulance raced by.

In parts of Nurdagi, the destruction was so complete it was hard to tell where the rubble from one building ended and another began. In other parts, high-rise buildings lingered, improbably, with walls sheared off, revealing tidy rooms with houseplants and colorful sofas and billowing white curtains.

The house where Ecem Su Cetin died had a red roof, like so many others in this town. When her body was pulled from the detritus Tuesday, her grandfather carried her, calling her “my little lamb.” Her cousin, Metin Cetin, said that she was 6 or 7 years old and that half a dozen family members also were inside the building, believed to be dead.

“No one came to help us,” he said.

The rescuers were trying their best, said another resident, Mehmet Erol, 23, who was slumped against a car, waiting for news about two cousins, ages 19 and 21. But there were not enough rescue teams and “too many people under the rubble.”

“We don’t have hope,” he said.

Nearby, an elderly man, Selahattin Taskin, was bereft, holding vigil over the body of his 15-year old daughter, Duygu, who was recovered from a house she rented with her family over some shops. Now she was in a dirt lot, covered in a blanket.

Ramazan Arslan, a music teacher, saw the bodies of his niece and nephew, ages 6 and 10, after they were pulled from their house on Tuesday. He did not know when or where they would be buried, he said. And he did not know what would become of this place, Nurdagi, given how little of it was left.

“Everyone is going to leave now,” he said. “Everyone is going to abandon it.”