But yesterday the four-year-old was lifted alive from a gap in the ruins just 18 inches high, after he was found by the same uncle who was convinced he was dead. Ismail had been buried in the darkness for 146 hours.
He was found at dawn yesterday in Cinarcik, a town close to Yalova on the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara, south of Istanbul. Last night he was recovering in an Istanbul hospital, severely dehydrated but expected to make a full recovery. "I was very scared," he said, an intravenous glucose drip attached to his arm, his chapped lips being moistened by nurses with a wet cloth.
Ismail said that when the earthquake struck, he had been playing with a toy truck, unable to sleep, when it suddenly went dark. "I was playing with my truck and I fell."
He said that realising he was trapped, he shouted to his parents for help. There was no answer so he simply waited. When he tired of that he clawed at the ruins with his hands in an effort to escape.
His uncle, Sait Cimen, said after so long in the ground, he presumed Ismail was dead. "We have prepared a grave in his hometown," Mr Cimen said.
But searching through the ruins early yesterday for Ismail's body, Mr Cimen flashed his torch into a tiny space beneath a collapsed balcony. The boy squinted into the beam.
Moments later Bulgarian and Turkish rescuers were helping lift Ismail from the rubble of his family home. His mouth was so dry he could barely speak.
Whilst Ismail's mother survived the earthquake, the bodies of his father and three sisters aged eight to 11 were recovered from the rubble. The body of one of his sisters had been lying close to Ismail as he lay in the darkness.
Dr Ayse Akcan, duty resident at the children's emergency ward at Cerrahapasa Hospital, said Ismail's survival was "truly miraculous. I can only imagine the survived because he suffered no serious physical injuries". But it was clear the boy had suffered mentally. Though initially he was able to say a few words, last night he stopped speaking.
"I think he has been hallucinating. He has not said what he is seeing but he keeps crying out," Dr Akcan said.
"Physically I think he will make a full recovery but mentally he will need some work. This is something he will probably never forget."
Ismail is likely to be one of the last survivors rescued.
Simo Wecksten, a member of the Finn Rescue Force which had been working in Yalova, was yesterday leaving Turkey, convinced his team had done all they could.
"All the possible places where someone could have survived were searched," he said. "The chances of anyone still being alive are very slim."Reuse content