Reporter's NotebookWhole neighborhoods destroyed, apartment buildings flattened

In devastated Turkey, rescuers battle cold, concrete to save those trapped by quake

Whole neighborhoods of Kahramanmaraş were flattened in Monday’s tremors; professional teams and local residents fight the clock to pull people from the rubble before it’s too late

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Israeli and local rescue teams working at the site of a building collapse in Marash, Turkey, February 8, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Israeli and local rescue teams working at the site of a building collapse in Marash, Turkey, February 8, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

KAHRAMANMARAS, Turkey — The devastation inflicted upon the southern Turkish city of Kahramanmaraş by the powerful earthquake on Monday is almost beyond comprehension — whole neighborhoods destroyed, apartment buildings flattened, utilities cut off. Thousands of people are estimated to be trapped inside collapsed buildings, but the immensity of the destruction means there simply are not enough rescue workers to get them out anytime soon.

The center of the city, home to a larger shopping mall complete with a Starbucks, simply is no more. Nearly every other building has been leveled, their floors sandwiched together, forcing the contents of the rooms to bulge out. The structures still standing are all seriously damaged and unstable, sometimes leaning to one side.

Everywhere you turn is another crushing sight: a bus knocked onto its side, cars mangled into unrecognizable shapes, trees snapped in half, women and men weeping. The language barrier makes it difficult to know exactly what they are crying about: Is it a loved one who didn’t make it out alive or the general trauma and tragedy that has suddenly and cruelly befallen them? With nowhere else to go, many residents have remained, starting bonfires outside the ruins of their family homes and aimlessly walking the surrounding streets.

One of them, a man named Eren, wasn’t even from that part of town. Eren, who declined to give his last name, said his family lived in a newer part of the city so while they acutely felt the tremor, their home was spared. But that wasn’t the case in the city center where he used to live and where a number of friends and acquaintances still live.

“My university professor lived in that building,” he said, pointing to a fully collapsed multi-story apartment building. “They think he’s still inside.”

Eren, a chemist, has no training in search and rescue but said he just felt a need to help. So he put his wife, kids and in-laws on a bus to Istanbul and came to the hard-hit city center.

“I had to help and I couldn’t do that if I was worrying about the safety of my wife and children,” he said, speaking in accented but fluent English.

Rescue efforts in Marash, Turkey, on February 8, 2023, in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

He’s not alone. Because of severe manpower shortages, local residents were doing a large part of the work themselves. With shovels, pickaxes, sledgehammers and some light power tools, they were working to retrieve bodies from the ruins, bringing them out in black plastic bodybags or sometimes just wrapped in blankets.

It is the hardest thing as a rescuer to say no to someone

Occasionally, they would come to the Israeli search-and-rescue workers to ask them for help. They were almost always rebuffed. As it was, the Israeli teams had more missions than time to perform them. They were also focused on rescuing living people trapped in the rubble, not the dead.

“It is the hardest thing as a rescuer to say no to someone,” one Israeli rescue worker from the United Hatzalah group said.

The air in Kahramanmaraş is thick with dust from the collapsed concrete and brick buildings, which blows into your eyes, nose, ears and mouth each time there’s a gust of frigid wind, which is often. As a result, nearly everyone on the street has bloodshot eyes, adding to the lachrymose scene.

It is there, in the heart of this devastated city, that Israeli search-and-rescue teams focused their efforts. In a combined operation, rescuers from Turkish forces, the Israel Defense Force, the Israeli national search-and-rescue unit, and the United Hatzalah emergency response group, worked to free a man trapped inside a multi-story apartment building that collapsed in the Monday morning quake.

Two and a half days later, the man was still alive, communicating with Israeli forces. Somehow when the building came down, the room he was in on the second floor wasn’t crushed flat and he was instead left inside a 6-foot wide, 6-foot long and nearly 3-foot tall space, giving him enough room to move. Other than some chestpains and difficulties breathing, he didn’t have serious injuries though the near-freezing temperatures and lack of water and food made it a race against time for Israeli forces to reach him.

Israeli rescue teams work to retrieve survivors from the rubble of collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaras, on February 8, 2023, following a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck southeast Turkey. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

It is grueling, delicate work to pull someone out of a collapsed building. Moving too quickly can shift the foundation and bring the remaining structure crashing down. The Israeli team began working to free the man on Wednesday afternoon, as of writing at 9 p.m., the efforts were ongoing.

Rescue workers know that two and a half days after the initial earthquake, there is still a chance to get people out alive, but that those chances are rapidly diminishing with each passing hour.

Throughout the day, Israeli forces pulled a number of people from the rubble. Around 8 p.m., a joint team of IDF search-and-rescue operators and United Hatzalah medical personnel freed a 15-year-old girl who had been trapped in the rubble of her apartment building.

For two and a half days, she had been stuck in the freezing cold, alone. The effort to pull her out lasted roughly 12 hours. As the rescuers prepared to bring her out, a small crowd of locals gathered, apparently looking for some sign of hope.

The girl was in serious condition, with major injuries to her legs, but she was alive. The crowd applauded as she came out of the rubble. The rescuers loaded her directly onto an ambulance, and she was taken to a nearby hospital, where they stabilized her and took her for CT scans.

“She has a long way ahead of her, but she’s alive,” the Israeli doctor who accompanied her to the hospital said.

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