“Isn’t this your duty?” Gencay said, then sank into a small yard and weighed his options. Finally, he walked away with his daughter towards Nurdagi, a town hit like so many in Turkey after Monday’s earthquakes and filled with ambulances and grief and dead everywhere.
The death toll in Turkey alone rose to nearly 5,900 on Tuesday, the government said, with little indication that the country was approaching a final count. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency in 10 affected regions as the proliferation of devastation stretching across southern and eastern Turkey came into view, characterized by twisted roads, crippled bridges and a relentless parade of bombed-out structures, from gas. stations to apartment buildings.
Nurdagi, a town of 40,000 in the shadow of snow-capped mountains, shared the fate of Turkey’s hardest-hit towns and cities, condemned for being located near the earthquake’s epicenter or along the fault line. Entire neighborhoods have collapsed to rubble in those places, and rescuers and residents struggle to understand the loss.
Here the dead were lined up outside the hospital, in body bags or blankets, dozens, because the morgue was full, a police officer said. They were carried out of houses that had collapsed on top of them, followed by the sound of family members wailing.
Some of the dead were presumed given the time that had elapsed since the quake leveled entire neighborhoods and crippled those buildings that had not collapsed. As hopes for the missing vanished, there were outbursts of grief and anger, in horrific scenes played out in what seemed like every block.
The fear began at the entrance to the city, where a man yelled at drivers trying to cut off a long line of cars and trucks, saying they were blocking the passage of ambulances. “How would you feel if your family was under the rubble?” he smoked. A few blocks away, rescuers 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 housed female teachers.
Ridvan Capak, 27, was in the apartment building before it fell. As it vibrated, he made eye contact with his sister and reached for her, he said. But then they broke up, when the building seemed to collapse and he found himself in what he called an “empty room” in the rubble.
A few hours later he heard voices and 21 hours after he was buried, rescuers pulled him out.
Now he stood on the hill again, yellow wellies on, his lips blackened by his ordeal, digging for his sister and her family, the task growing grimmer by the hour.
A few blocks away, near a series of damaged stores, a man who gave his first name, Okkus, said five family members were trapped in a nearby building. He had no idea if they were still alive. The rescue teams had “arrived late,” he said, the first arriving in Nurdagi early Monday evening.
“We took good care of ourselves,” he said.
As the city waited for help, several members of Zaki Moussa’s family died in a building housing Syrian families from Aleppo. There were more than 1,000 Syrian families in Nurdagi, he said, estimating hundreds of Syrians were among the dead.
As he spoke, a few blocks away, a woman with dyed blond hair ran into an intersection, in a panic, gesturing for a group of soldiers to follow her, to save a child she thought might be trapped under a large building to live. Half an hour later, the woman was sitting on a curb with what looked like a child’s pillow, blue and shaped like a cloud. The soldiers were close by.
The bodies of two children had been removed from the building, one of the soldiers said, adding: “It will be difficult to get anyone out after this hour.” The woman hit the pillow and screamed.
“I couldn’t save him,” she said. Another ambulance passed by.
In parts of Nurdagi, the destruction was so great that it was difficult to tell where the rubble of one building ended and another began. In other parts, improbably, tall buildings remained standing with torn walls, revealing neat 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 removed from the garbage on Tuesday, her grandfather carried her and called her “my little sheep.” Her cousin, Metin Cetin, said she was 6 or 7 years old and half a dozen relatives were also in the building, presumed dead.
“No one came to help us,” he said.
The rescuers did their best, said another resident, Mehmet Erol, 23, who had crashed into a car waiting for news of two cousins, ages 19 and 21. But there were not enough rescue teams and “too many people under the rubble”. .”
“We have no hope,” he said.
Nearby, an elderly man, Selahattin Taskin, had been robbed while standing guard over the body of his 15-year-old daughter, Duygu, who was being retrieved from a house she rented with her family above a few shops. Now she was standing on a piece of ground, covered with a blanket.
Ramazan Arslan, a music teacher, saw the bodies of his niece and nephew, ages 6 and 10, after they were taken from their home on Tuesday. He didn’t know when or where they would be buried, he said. And he didn’t know what would become of this place, Nurdagi, since so little of it was left.
“Everyone is going to leave now,” he said. “Everyone is going to quit.”