Earthquake In Turkey: `For 36 hours the roof lay on my face'

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"ALL I could think to do was to pray to God. Whatever he wanted, would happen. If he wanted me to live I would live - if he wanted me to die I would die." Elif Giftgi could barely speak yesterday. An oxygen mask covered her bruised face and her chest - crushed by the tons of rubble that had lain on her for 36 hours - hurt when she tried to move.

But from her bed in the Avcilar Vatan hospital she gave a terrifying account of the hours she spent entombed in darkness, not knowing whether she would ever emerge. "When the quake happened our flat started shaking. Everyone was screaming. My younger brother said not to worry because the houses opposite were all right. As he spoke, our house collapsed," she said.

Elif, 22, had been sleeping on the upper bunk bed in a room she shared with her younger brother, Muhammed, in the family home in Avcilar, one of the Istanbul suburbs worst hit by the devastation. When the subsidence stopped, she found herself trapped with the ceiling just inches away. "There was not a handspan of space between the roof and my face. I was lying on my side and I could feel the rubble rubbing against my back. The only thing I could move was my left arm."

Elif's parents, with her older brother, Veysel, had been in adjoining rooms. She could hear her parents crying out, asking whether they were all right. While they could not hear her, Elif was able to pass on messages to them through Muhammed, who was lying closer to them. There was no sound from her elder brother.

"I just kept saying that I was all right. It was important to me to know they were alive. I did not want to make my mother sad so I just said I was fine," said Elif, who recently graduated as a nurse. "Most of the time I just spoke to God, asking him to help. At some point I felt tired and I fell asleep. I did not dream of anything but when I woke up I realised that nothing had changed."

The hours wore on. Elif had nothing to drink and in the dusty, confined space it was terribly hot. At one point a fire raged on top of the rubble and water, wonderfully cooling, dripped down to her through the debris as the firefighters doused the flames with hoses.

She now knows it was 28 hours before she heard the sound of the rescuers. "We all kept making noises, me and my brother," she said. "My father kept shouting at the rescuers."

But there were problems. The route the rescuers first tried was blocked and they had to start again, carefully moving away the rubble as they tried to reach the family. "I could hear everything that was happening - the machines and the noise of the drilling. I knew at that moment I would be saved."

But there were many hours to go. First the rescuers reached her parents, Dogan and Nazife, who were lifted from the ruins remarkably unharmed. Then it was the turn of 17-year-old Muhammed, who had urged the emergency crews to save his sister first. "Get my sister out, she is worse than me. She has less space," she could hear him tell them.

Then, minutes later, there was movement in the rubble and a torchlight fell on Elif's face. The rescuers had finally reached her. "I tried to wave to them. I thought that maybe they would not see me," she said. "At this point I was getting so excited that I could barely breathe. The rescuers were so close and I thought I was going to die there and then."

Moments later, arms were around her and she was being lifted, blinking, into the mid-afternoon sun. "I was so happy. It was so good to breathe again and to see outside."

Doctors at the hospital where 150 of the injured are being treated described Elif's experience as a miracle. Although yesterday afternoon she had not yet been told her elder brother had died in the rubble, medics who have seen so much horror over the past few days believe that for Elif and three close relatives to have survived was well against the odds.

"Most of the people here cannot bear to speak about what has happened," said Dr Nejat Cambazoglu, one of the hospital's senior staff. "It damages them psychologically to go through it all again."

In her private room, surrounded by her cousins who will tell her the news of her brother when she is strong enough, Elif found it hard to explain how she had survived. "I am a believer. I believe in God. Everything is from God, even death."