“Merv! Erm! Merv! Irem,” shouts rescue worker Mustafa Ozturk. Everyone around us is ordered to be silent. The team searches for two sisters who other survivors say are trapped alive under a pile of rubble.
With sensitive devices they listen for any feedback. Everyone is overwhelmed with anticipation.
And then, a breakthrough. “Irem, my dear, I am close to you, do you hear me, yes?” Mustafa says.
Those of us watching can’t hear it, but it’s clear now that she’s reacting. A small group of girl friends waited silently with us.
“You are amazing! Now you just answer me. Ah well, that’s Merv. Dear, answer my questions,” he says.
Merv, 24, and her sister Ayrem, 19, were trapped under the rubble of their five-storey apartment block in Antakya, southern Turkey, which was flattened by the earthquake. Two days passed, but those days felt like weeks to them.
“It’s Wednesday. No! You are not caught for 14 days. Give us five minutes. You are out. “
Mustafa knows it will take hours, but tells us: “If they lose their hope, they will not survive.”
Merv and Irem start joking and laughing together. I can see a big smile on Mustafa’s face: “They probably dance if they have space,” he says.
Rescuers reckon 2m (6.6 ft) is needed to reach the sisters, but Hassan Binay, commander of the rescue team, says digging a tunnel in concrete is a delicate operation. One wrong move can lead to disaster.
A bulldozer is called upon to lift and hold the thick concrete slightly to prevent it from collapsing when the building begins to be excavated.
“Girls, we’ll give you blankets soon.” Mustafa tells the sisters. “Oh no, don’t worry about us. We are not tired or cold. “
Mustafa says that Merv is worried about the situation of the guardians. It is 20:30 local time and it is very cold. The region has had one of the coldest winters in living memory.
The rescuers start digging and throwing away the debris with their bare hands.
But after a couple of hours we feel the ground suddenly shaking beneath our feet. This is a powerful aftershock. The operation must be stopped and we leave the destroyed building.
“Here is a brutal reality. Hasan says the safety of our team comes first.
After 30 minutes, Mustafa and three other rescuers return to where they were digging.
“Don’t be afraid. Trust me I won’t leave you here. I will bring you out and you will take us to a nice meal,” shouts Mustafa. The girls felt they had been left to die.
It is now midnight and the digging has started again. The team hasn’t slept in days. We gathered around a small fire next to the building.
Every time there is a cry: “Secizlik”, which means silence. The light goes off, now total darkness. A small hole is made in the concrete so that the girls can see the light from Mustafa’s torch.
“Merv! Erm! Do you see the light? OK! Perfect! Now I’m sending down a small camera. Tell me after you see it and I’ll tell you what to do. “
It is a moment of celebration for all. Hasan joined his team and connected the girls to their night vision camera on a small screen. He could see both Irem and Merv.
“You’re so beautiful. Don’t move too much. Irem pull up the camera so we can see Merv better.”
On the screen, we see Irem smiling. Fortunately there is enough space between the concrete to trap them.
Everyone’s face is full of relief. The girls look good and Irem has room to pull herself up if they make the hole bigger.
But immediately the team is concerned. Merv told them that she was starting to feel cold and that something was heavy on her feet.
The doctor was worried: “Does Merv’s feet have gangrene? Or is this the first symptom of hypothermia?”
It is now almost 05:00. The tunnel is large enough for skinny team members to crawl under. The rescuer was able to reach out and hold Irem’s hand for a few moments.
“Our mother’s body has started to stink and we can’t breathe properly,” Irem tells the rescuers. The girls have been sleeping next to their dead mother for days.
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