Story Corps

ISLAHIYE, Turkey — When volunteer rescue workers pulled Derya Demir, 44, from the rubble of her collapsed apartment in the southeastern Turkish city of Islahiye last Tuesday, her arms were wrapped around her four children.

In the last moments of their lives, crushed under the weight of their shoddily built apartment block, Demir and her sons Emir, 3, and Mehmet Ali, 13, and daughters Damla, 8, and Yagmur, 10, had all clung to each other tight.

By Sunday, there hadn't been a sound from under the rubble in five days and the air stank of rotting corpses.

Looking at the ruins of the apartment building, Demir's youngest sister, Melike Bayar, 34, can't stop crying. Their mother, Sakine Demir, 65, and another sister, Semra Demir, 35, are still beneath the rubble. They have yet to be found. Kamil, Sakine's husband, survived because he was in a hospital for dialysis treatment on the night of the quake.

Through tears, Bayar says she tries not to despair.

"I still have hope," she says. "Without hope, what can we do?"

Younger relatives, including 26-year-old Mehmet Gezici and his wife, Zinan Gezici, 23, who flew in from Paris to help after the quake, are less optimistic. They believe Sakine and Semra are dead.

Sakine's younger sister, Medine, cannot stop wailing.

"I am gone," she says. "My body is here, but I am gone."

In the week since a magnitude 7.8 earthquake and a series of powerful aftershocks hit Turkey and Syria, leveling cities like Islahiye, over 36,000 people have died. Many Turkish politicians and experts say the toll is likely far higher.

Many blame the scale of the tragedy on a construction industry that runs on corruption and a lack of implemented regulations. At least a dozen building contractors have been arrested by the Turkish government for their alleged role in the deaths.

On Saturday, Garo Paylan, a representative of the opposition People's Democratic Party from Diyarbakir, one of the cities affected by the quake, tweeted from the devastated city of Adiyaman that the government was undercounting the dead. Experts believe that as many as 200,000 people could still remain under the rubble. Search teams in both Turkey and Syria believe the hope of recovering people alive at this point is slim.

At the Islahiye apartment building site, dozens of families are still waiting. They sit on black plastic chairs facing the rubble, faces twisted in grief. The air is thick with the smell of corpses, of smoke, of chalky concrete. Building dust and ash float and settle on the clothes people have been wearing for the past week.

The first winch, needed to lift concrete, arrived Wednesday, but could only lift 100 tons. The second arrived Saturday, six days after the earthquake. In a week, volunteer crews have only made it down from the sixth floor to the third floor of the building.

Members of Derya Demir's family, all Kurdish and originally from the nearby town of Colaklar, have been here since last Monday, shortly after the quake hit. The first to arrive was her brother Hidayet, 45, the middle of the six Demir siblings and the only brother among the bunch.

He drove from his home in Gaziantep, spared from the quake, to Islahiye, an hour away, arriving before dawn. The building where his mother and sisters had lived looked like a "stack of plates," he says, the floors and ceilings pressed one on top of the other. He tried to clear some rubble with his bare hands. He hasn't left the site since.

When asked how he is doing, he says, "Incredibly badly," speaking in a shocked monotone. As he speaks, his eyes dart back to the collapsed building where his sister and mother still lie.

The rest of the family arrived last Tuesday, including cousins, the Sonmez family, from the village of Colaklar. The first volunteer teams began recovering bodies and survivors more than 24 hours after the quake. They picked through concrete and the remnants of people's lives — curtains, carpets, bright green couches — and finally found Derya Demir and her children.

Hidayet says that when he arrived Monday morning, people told him they had heard children's screams from the direction of Derya's apartment. For at least some time after the earthquake, the family believes, the children were alive. They think help came too little, too late.

As they wait for crews to find their mother and sister, they hold each other as they warm themselves around a fire that's been burning for a week next to the site.

They are angry, they say, and sick of waiting. They have, Zinan says, "no tears left to cry."

Still, they try to share happy memories, and they speak of their loved ones in the present tense. The four young children, and Derya, Sakine, and Semra — all, in their telling, still exist.

They talk about how Semra loves animals, how she never stops laughing. Her dedication to her parents.

Mirsam Sonmez, one of the cousins, says that until they find Semra and Sakine, "We can't think about the future. We're busy trying to find the dead."

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