Earthquake In Turkey: The Aftermath: Rescuers in appalling race to reach thousands buried alive in the ruins

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The Independent Online
EMERGENCY WORKERS were in a race against time last night, trying to rescue as many as 10,000 people still missing in North-western Turkey .

Government figures put the confirmed death toll from the quake and its aftershocks at nearly 3,500 people, with a further 16,000 injured.

In the searing August heat of Anatolia and Thrace, there were fears that thousands more people trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings would die of dehydration or suffocation before rescuers could reach them.

As the death toll mounted, mortuary facilities were overwhelmed. In Izmit rows of bodies wrapped in blood-stained towels and garish blankets eerily lined an ice rink .

Friends and family, holding handkerchiefs to their noses to ward off the overpowering stench, walked amongst the bodies searching for loved ones. A thick steam enveloped the closed rink, produced by a melding of bodies and ice.

Young army cadets in fatigues, wearing plastic gloves and white sterile face masks, wheeled in the newly arrived bodies on red metal stretchers, while trucks and cars carrying more victims, sometimes piled on top of each other, poured into the car park.

Close to 1,000 people have died in Izmit alone, the epicentre of the devastating quake on Tuesday. More than 16,000 were wounded.

All day yesterday, foreign aid was pouring into Turkey from dozens of countries, including Britain, in the form of expert rescue teams, armed with the equipment needed to detect the presence of living people under the rubble.

The quake has been assessed at having measured 7.4 on the Richter scale - higher than originally thought. Aftershocks measuring up to 5 on the Richter scale were felt yesterday, more than 24 hours after the initial shock.

Makeshift medical centres have been set up on street corners and in ruined buildings. Thousands of ordinary citizens - many using their bare hands - worked throughout the night, searching for survivors.

In the port of Golcuk, about 130km (80 miles) to the south-east of Istanbul, the magnitude of devastation and loss of life in the naval base town was only just emerging.

Yesterday the town's mayor, Ismail Baris, said that as many as 10,000 people could still be trapped in the rubble, out of a total population of 80,000.

Many of the shattered sites remain untouched. On virtually very street of the town, apartment buildings have pancaked and the barrack buildings in the naval base have been flattened. But by yesterday evening only 20 bodies had been recovered.

But there were some minor miracles in the town, including the dramatic rescue of a six-year old from the ruins of his devastated home.

"I saw lots of dreams in there. It was so dark," Akin Sirnen said after rescuers dramatically pulled him, stunned and dust-caked, from the ruins.His mother, father and sister remained buried below.

Akin's aunt burst into tears and bystanders applauded and cheered as he was carried by a fireman from the wreckage. She called his name gently as he was delivered into her shaking, outstretched arms.

Within seconds Akin, wrapped in a sheet and scarcely conscious, was rushed to a nearby hospital. "I was so happy when I saw Akin's face but we have to keep searching," said Huseyin, Akin's teenage uncle. "They say there are sounds below, but who knows?"

Local people drew hope from the fact that the building, one of about 20 on the block that collapsed in the quake, had fallen sideways. "We think there may be hollows down there in which people might still be alive," said one man.

Rescuers worked in scorching heat, sweating heavily as they tore into masonry with picks and sledgehammers. Others worked frantically with their bare hands. By late afternoon an excavator arrived to help clear away debris, but the heavy concrete slabs were too great a challenge, even for them.

The fate of Akin's mother, father and two-year-old sister, Betul, remained unclear. But the Sirnens were not the only family encased in the grim remains of the six-storey apartment block.

"Finding Akin gave us all hope," said Faik Uyanik, a 25-year old television newscaster. Mr Uyanik had rushed to Golcuk to search the rubble for his mother, father and 14-year-old sister.

Around him was a scene of devastation and noisy confusion. A wasteland of rubble was littered with broken furniture, clothes and crushed cars.

Five minutes after Akin was rescued, a moustached man in his 40s was taken to the courtyard of a mosque opposite. He had already lost several relatives. In the yard lay seven bodies.

A man pulled back the sheet on the first body. He screamed and collapsed. It was his nephew. A second nephew was also there. The man, dressed in a black suit covered in dust, lay prostrate. Someone poured water over his head.

As evening approached, Akin, now safely at his grandparents' home, remained the only source of hope for those searching the ruins of the house for their relatives. Doctors had given him a clean bill of health. He was given food and water and taken to bed to rest. "He's still in shock. He needs to rest." his uncle said.

The most serious damage was in Izmit, the city closest to the epicentre of the earthquake, where nearly 1,000 people are known to have died. Even the town's hospital did not escape. Patients and medical staff were still trapped last night and were believed dead.

Also in Izmit, the earthquake caused a massive fire at Turkey's largest oil refinery. Memduh Oguz, the region's governor, said the blaze could still spread, causing yet another disaster.

Seven of Turkey's affected provinces have now been declared a disaster zone, a move which has enabled the government to commandeer facilities for the relief effort.

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