1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Heartbreak and hope in Turkish city after quake

Teri Schultz
February 10, 2023

The casualty count is climbing by the minute as a humanitarian catastrophe beyond all comprehension unfolds. In southern Turkey, DW's Teri Schultz witnessed both heartbreak and hope.

Woman and boy rescued 68 hours after earthquake.
A woman and her 5-year-old son were rescued in Kahranmanmaras 68 hours after the first Turkish earthquake on Monday. Image: Mustafa Seven/AA/picture alliance

Everyone was waiting for a miracle in Cukurova.

Most people in this multi-story apartment building in an Adana district died when the first quake caused it to crumble. But more than 36 hours later, an SOS had come via WhatsApp from under the massive pile of broken concrete. Someone was still alive under there.

Holding out hope

It wasn't unthinkable — one survivor had been pulled out alive earlier Tuesday — so the Turkish rescue teams called on the assistance of the Bulgarian Red Cross, one of the first international organizations to have arrived in Adana, and the sniffer dogs they'd brought with them. The canines, who do not signal for corpses, confirmed it — it was possible a person was still alive in there. Excavation efforts were redoubled overnight, with machines, trained specialists and ordinary citizens pitching in, digging with plastic containers and their bare hands.

Rescue workers in Adana watch excavation efforts
Rescue workers in Adana watch efforts to uncover an area where a survivor is believed to be trappedImage: Teri Schultz/DW

Watching and waiting

Word had spread in the neighborhood and crowds were gathering to watch. Any shred of positive news would be most desperately welcomed by the thousands of people now living in Adana's streets — in the middle to stay away from buildings — and trying to keep themselves warm with fires in freezing temperatures.

Even in a city more than 200 kilometers from the epicenter, the fact that several large buildings had been destroyed meant plenty of death and displacement.

Then, Wednesday morning, a body was retrieved. Whenever this happens, the teams hold up a cloth to respectfully shield the process from bystanders and to solemnly wrap the remains. There was a moment of silence while it was hoisted out of the debris, then murmurs of "Allahu ekber” — "God is great” — while the body was carried away.

Canine confidence

Watching this with a sunken heart, I had to find out: Was this the sender of the WhatsApp message? Must we give up hope for a survivor? I darted around the diggers seeing if anyone spoke English, and I was lucky enough to meet Tervel Totev from the Bulgarian Red Cross team.

We're not giving up, he said, explaining that they had already known about this body, sadly, as the hands had been visible for some time. Within about an hour, the dog detectives came back to check again.

An incredible hush fell across the block, near-complete silence, so that everyone could hear whether the dogs barked as they scrambled around the rubble. And again, their reaction encouraged those on the scene to cling to the hope that, even more than 48 hours after the first quake, this could still be a "rescue” and not a "recovery” operation.

As residents of Cukurova continued to mass, many of them shared supplies amongst themselves — and even with the growing crowd of journalists — water, food, cups of tea, even gloves insistently thrust upon this reporter who'd forgotten hers in the car. "Do you need anything?” they would ask, and then say, "Thank you for coming. Thank you for showing the world that we need help.”

Up on the pile of concrete, an impressive operation involving a heavy chain and crane had just lifted away a massive piece of concrete. There was palpable excitement in the air as the teams could now get to what was believed to be the crucial area.

Rescue turns to recovery

But then, as everyone held their breath, the telltale cloth went up. There would be no rescue here.

It felt personal. No, that's not fair to those for whom it actually was. But it was clear I wasn't the only one feeling this way. With the overwhelming weight of a death toll going up by the thousands every hour, it was incredible how desperately locals and foreigners alike wanted to experience even one more happy outcome. I'd have to get mine from Turkish television, which I watched obsessively whenever possible, and which shared that people were still being saved in other cities.

Focus on the future

It was somewhat of a relief, in comparison, to speak then with those who had survived. A few blocks away sat 400 tents housing some 1,200 people who had been made homeless. Cukurova Mayor Soner Cetin, there at the site, told me there were thousands more people who urgently needed shelter but that officials were checking buildings to see if some of them could safely return to standing buildings once the aftershocks stopped.


Displaced people warm themselves in Adana
Adana residents who have lost their homes or can't risk being in fragile buildings warm themselves at a camp for the displacedImage: Teri Schultz/DW

Cetin deflected my questions about whether he shared the views of those criticizing the Turkish government and the international community for the slow arrival of help. He said his community, which had seen about 400 deaths out of a population of roughly 400,000, was doing relatively well for now in terms of food supplies, but that warm blankets were still needed.

Again, the people in the camp kept offering items from their stockpiles. Did we want soup? Tea? Juice?

But for the first time since I'd arrived in Turkey, something was asked of me.

Two adorable girls, aged three and eight, had run from their parents and campfire right up to me when my cameraman and I got to the camp, gesturing to my face. What could they want? They made movements like painting their own faces.

Little girls play with reporter's lipstick
Young sisters made homeless by the earthquakes ask to share makeupImage: Teri Schultz/DW

Lipstick, really?! I pulled mine out of my pocket, applied it to their lips and gave it to them as they squealed with delight and ran back to their parents to show them.

They likely had few clothes and toys, and some extremely difficult days ahead, but they at least had one small distraction now.

The pink kisses they joyfully left on my cheeks brought tears to my eyes and hope to my heart that their homes, cities and futures can be rebuilt.

Edited by Andreas Illmer