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Middle East Brian Dispatch

Five Days, Twelve Lives... A Look Into One Rescue Worker's Journal
February 19, 2000

What were you doing on August 17, 1999? I sometimes have trouble remembering what I did six days ago, so six months is really a stretch for my crusty brain. But no one in northwestern Turkey will forget that fateful day six months ago. The earthquake that struck in the early morning hours is now etched permanently in their memory. I had the honor of speaking with Okan Cuntay, a resident of Istanbul who felt the quake that morning and volunteered with rescue teams in Adapazari, a city struck hard by the quake.

We talked about the days following the quake, and he shared some of his journal entries from that time. Here is his account:

August 17 1999

The ground shook for an eternity that morning. It was three a.m. and the earth shook for forty-five seconds. That is such a long time when the whole world seems to be moving. I immediately knew that there had been a major earthquake in the area. My family gathered together in the living room and we listened to the radio together. There was a man on the radio who was crying and speaking of the quake, but the news programs on television carried on as usual. We stayed up until seven a.m., but the television made no mention of the quake, so we thought that it had struck in a relatively deserted area. We all went back to bed and woke again around ten a.m.

When we awoke, we discovered that the quake had caused damage worse than we had imagined. Helicopters with television cameras were flying over damaged areas in the cities of Yalova and Adapazari and broadcasting the pictures. I had never seen anything like it before-entire city blocks were now flattened buildings and heaps of rubble.

delegating - to assign responsibility or authority
adrenaline - the principal blood-pressure raising hormone, used medicinally especially as a heart stimulant

When we saw those images my first impulse was to help, but I thought that if we drove out to the site of the quake we would just get in the way. My girlfriend Berra went to Yalova to get her grandmother, and she was shocked by the damage that she saw. When Berra returned from Yalova she insisted that we go and help the victims. Several hours later the news announced that translators were needed to aid the rescue teams. I knew then that I could help, and I loaded up the car along with my brother Erkan, Berra and my best friend Orhan.

When we stopped at a grocery store to buy food and supplies, we told them that we were on our way to help the earthquake victims. The clerks gave us
everything for free; they were practically throwing food on our cart! Everyone was very eager to help.

August 18 1999

We drove to Adapazari, one of the cities hit hardest by the earthquake, and found a scene of chaos. So many people had lost their homes and others were looking in the rubble for family members that lay buried beneath them. At night we slept outside on the ground and looked at the stars because aftershocks might strike at any time and collapse any weakened buildings.

Click image for larger view
Leaning tower of Adapazari: many buildings  now lean at dangerous angles.
The rescue efforts were so disorganized. There were rescue teams and relief organizations from all over the world, and they did not seem to communicate with each other. And what was even worse was the feeling that they were somehow competing to rescue the most people; the team with the most rescues wins the trophy. When we arrived in Adapazari we immediately went to the crisis center headquarters and offered our services. The lady from the Turkish rescue team told us that they didn't need any help, but that if we waited around she would let us know if anything became available. In the meantime we spotted a gentleman from the Swiss rescue team and began speaking with him. He was very glad to have our help and the use of our vehicle. As we left with him, the woman from the Turkish agency was so angry. I wanted to say to her, "This is not a competition!"

August 20 1999

The next several days were a blur as I worked with the Swiss rescue team. The smell of death was heavy in the air, and the destruction was much worse than anything I had ever seen in the movies. It was our job to save as many people as possible, but this is not an easy task. We passed by many houses because it seemed that the chances of any survivors being in the wreckage were very slim. Relatives pleaded with us to search the ruins, and I had to tell them that we were moving on. We must choose to dig in locations that offer the best chance of recovering survivors. They pulled on my shirt and pleaded with me; tears were running down their faces and I often found that I was crying also. We spent twelve hours trying to save a man that day. People heard voices coming from the ruins, and we spent most of the day working to free him. We did find the man, but he was not speaking. He had died, and the gases in his body were escaping through his mouth, causing a burping sound.

August 21 1999

Time was running out. After more than three days, the chance of finding survivors in the wreckage is very small.

A young girl was trapped in the wreckage of her home, and her mother stood outside and begged us to dig her out. A Turkish rescue team dug a tunnel to her earlier and found her trapped behind a couch, unable to move. For the next eight hours she became the purpose of my life. My only hope was for this girl to survive. I had seen so many people die already, and I just prayed to God to save this girl. Volunteers arrived at the scene and I began delegating responsibility. The tunnel was not reinforced and seemed ready to collapse, so it would be many hours before we could reach her safely. And reaching a survivor is only the beginning. Removing someone is the hardest part, because their bodies have gone into shock and we must be extremely careful when we move them. One of my colleagues reached her and administered an adrenaline shot to keep her alive. She died fifteen minutes later.

August 22 1999

Four days had passed, and it was time for me to go back to my home in Istanbul. Many survivors had been found.

Those days changed my life forever. I ask questions of myself-what if we had arrived sooner? Would more people be alive today? We rescued twelve people, and that knowledge does make me feel better. I am proud of myself and all those who came together without hesitation. I found reserves of strength and compassion that I never knew I had inside me.

Click image for larger view
Okan (in Bullwinkle hat) relaxes at home with his brother Erkan.
Okan is now relaxing in his Istanbul home as he recounts those days, and the memories are still fresh in his mind. For four fateful days he walked through a valley of death and destruction, and he left with a greater appreciation for the gift of life and our ability to help those in need. I try to put myself in his shoes--would I do the same thing in his situation? Would you?


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