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Harrowing Wait for Turkish Couple

August 19, 1999

DERINCE, Turkey (AP) _ The floor tilted and their bed skidded wildly toward the wall. Then suddenly the wall was gone and they dropped into a torrent of debris and furniture.

``I remember thinking, `This must be a strange dream,″ said Kemal Yildirim.

He tried to grab at the bed’s headboard as he and his wife began to plummet three stories in the dark. But they were catapulted out, landing on someone else’s kitchen floor. The bed caught on a counter just above them, creating a small wedge of safety as the rubble piled up.

``We expected to be crushed any moment,″ Yildirim said. ``We thought we were breathing our last breaths.″

But the bed held up. For nearly 40 hours, the couple shouted, prayed and tried to ignore their gnawing thirst. Finally they felt a rush of fresh air, and a rescuer’s hand reached out.

``And we returned to the world,″ said Yildirim. ``Our tiny place in the ruins was something else _ a tomb for the living.″

___

In the terrifying seconds of a powerful earthquake _ such as the one that ravaged western Turkey on Tuesday _ luck or tragedy is often random. A wall or cabinet can crush or protect depending on how it falls. One ceiling crashes with deadly force; another somehow leaves a crawl space.

At No. 59 Kanya Caddesi, a 30-year-old wooden bed kept tons of concrete from roaring down on the couple when the quake hit at 3 a.m. For about a half hour, they dared not move. The V-shaped wreckage of the four-story building groaned and snapped as it settled. Water cascaded from ruptured pipes.

The space was just large enough for them to slither a few feet, said Yildirim. Remarkably, there was barely a scratch on either Yildirim or his wife, Bahrige, both retired from factory jobs in Germany and visiting for the summer. Their first shouts were not for help, but to call out to others who were sleeping in the apartment: their son, his wife and their 9-year-old son.

No one replied.

More than 20 people had been in the building, an ordinary concrete apartment block built in the early 1970s.

``The silence was the worst,″ said Yildirim, 59. ``To us, it meant death.″

They tried to assure themselves that perhaps the others had gotten out, then took turns screaming for help.

At dawn, they could hear a few vehicles coming into the town, 90 miles southeast of Istanbul. Some pinpricks of light pierced through the rubble. They began carefully pushing away bits of rubble for extra room.

Then came aftershocks, some strong enough to shift the concrete slabs above them.

``Each time the ground would shake, we would just hold hands and pray,″ said Yildirim. ``Praying gave us strength.″

___

Sometime during the midday heat Tuesday, the Yildirims fell asleep. They wanted to stay awake in case rescuers arrived. But it seemed no one was listening to their cries _ or perhaps they were too overwhelmed to respond.

The Turkish relief effort has been denounced by many survivors as weak and disorganized. In many areas, family members and civilian volunteers were the first to peer into the debris for signs of life.

A voice woke Yildirim and his 58-year-old wife. ``Anyone there?″ a man cried.

``We’re here!″ they shouted. ``Help us!″

Yildirim tried pounding two concrete chunks together as a signal. They just crumbled with a dull thud _ a discouraging sign of the cheap construction materials used on many of the thousands of buildings pulled down by the temblor.

The rescuer’s voice grew fainter. He didn’t hear them and was moving down the street to other toppled apartments.

For the first time since the quake, Yildirim’s wife started to sob. He wanted to embrace her, but there wasn’t enough room.

``Why shouldn’t she cry? It was only right,″ he said. ``It just seemed like we were losing hope. When you lose hope, you die.″

But will alone is not enough to survive. Without water, death can come in a matter of days _ especially in the hot, humid summers of western Turkey.

By Wednesday morning, thirst was burning their throats. Swallowing was difficult and their tongues began to swell. Yildirim looked through a small hole to the overcast sky and thought it might rain. But it wasn’t rain clouds; it was the murky haze from an inferno at Turkey’s largest oil refinery, three miles away.

``This was the point I thought we would die,″ said Yildirim.

___

Shortly before sundown Wednesday, a concrete slab was lifted away and sunlight poured down on them. Rescuers reached down and within minutes the couple was crawling to safety.

Their relief, however, was brief. The rest of their family was among the nearly 15 people still missing.

On Thursday, Yildirim stood on the sidewalk across the street from the rubble. His wife would not join the vigil. She believes her son and the others are dead and has already started mourning.

An Austrian rescuer combed the ruins with a dog trained to sniff for bodies. There were no traces. The missing must be buried too deeply, the rescuer said.

Yildirim walked across the street and, very weakly, called out his son’s name.

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