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Miracle rescues in Izmir provide Turks hope following earthquake

A second 3-year-old girl is saved from the rubble, bringing optimism to Izmir even as the number of deaths rise from the 7.0-magnitude quake.

IZMIR, Turkey —  The morning of Nov. 3, a group of rescuers pulled out 3-year-old Ayda Gezgin out of the rubble. The girl had been buried for 91 hours following the magnitude-7.0 earthquake that struck Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, on Oct. 30.

Ayda was found trapped behind a kitchen appliance in her family’s apartment in a collapsed eight-story building. Her father was saved from the rubble the previous day but her mother, Fidan, who was in the flat with her, was killed in the quake, according to Kerem Kinik, the head of Kizilay, Turkey’s Red Crescent.

“I have a 6-year-old son,” Cem Erdogan, the rescuer who found Ayda, told Al-Monitor. He had come to Izmir from the southeastern town of Tunceli to help local rescue teams. “When I heard her voice and saw those olive eyes, I felt as if I had saved my own boy. She has a zest for living, that one!”

“Ayda is a miracle,” tweeted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a rare sentimental post. “Thank God as he has given us new hope through your smiling eyes.” The president, flanked by his top brass, visited the city, which is an opposition stronghold, Nov. 1.

Ayda’s dramatic rescue followed that of Elif Perincek, a 3-year-old girl who was saved 24 hours before. A photo of Elif’s hand, curled around that of her rescuer, Muammer Celik, was widely seen on newspaper front pages and in social media images that used the hashtag #thereisstillhope. Elif, bruised around her face covered with blonde tresses, is currently at an Izmir hospital. Her mother, Seher Perincek, was pulled out of the rubble alive Oct. 31 along with Elif's two sisters, who are twins. But their 7-year-old brother, Umut, whose name means hope in Turkish, died.

“Elif clutched my hand as I reached for her,” Celik, a fireman from Istanbul, told the BBC. Celik initially thought the little girl was dead, but when he reached for her face, she grabbed his finger. “It was a great gift to all of us,” he said.

Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, more known for his grim and cautionary tone, tweeted, “Life has won once more,” adding that the rescue “of Elif has given both hope and courage to our fight to save lives. Thanks to the outstanding teams.”

Elif’s name has been given to a park in Bartin, a city in northern Turkey, and a Turkish businessman has said he will cover all her education expenses in the future.

“The news of the two children has given us all hope, including those of us whose loved ones did not survive,” said Seval Eroglu, whose brother-in-law, Fatih Agar, died under the debris.

“The work done by the rescue teams, the cooperation between the volunteers and the local authorities have all gone smoothly. In an earthquake, the first 72 hours are crucial in assessing impact and making a needs map,” Itir Erhart, a member of the NGO Disaster Coordination Platform, told Al-Monitor. The platform, founded earlier this year, aims to bring together nongovernmental organizations — from medical aid ones to food banks — to mobilize help in case of a natural disaster. “We were able to cooperate efficiently and swiftly with the local authorities,” Erhart said.

More than 1,770 rescue personnel and thousands of volunteers from Izmir and all over Turkey have rushed to help — either by setting up tents or providing food and clothes. “We have received aid from 81 cities in Turkey as well as 340 cities all around the world,” said Izmir Mayor Tunc Soyer in his daily online press conference Nov. 3. He also said many people with second homes in the Izmir area offered to open their vacant dwellings to earthquake victims.

Despite positive stories, however, hope continued to fade even as hundreds of rescuers from all around Turkey dug into the rubble. The number of victims reached 109, said Soyer, the city’s Social Democrat mayor. Most of the deaths took place in Bayrakli, a central district dubbed the “Manhattan of Izmir” because of its high-rise luxury buildings and posh shopping malls. The district’s urban landscape is a mish-mash of seven- and eight-story buildings from the 1990s — for example, the Rizabey and Doganlar apartment buildings both collapsed — and more recent “residential towers,” built by construction groups close to the central government, as the liberal port city became popular for wealthy Istanbulites, white collar workers and entrepreneurs.

Some of the new buildings, including the recently renovated Justice Hall, suffered cracks in their walls and were vacated. Soyer told an online press conference that some eight buildings had completely collapsed and 14 needed to be torn down because of the quake damage they suffered.

Some engineers and residents say the risks posed by many of the buildings in Bayrakli have long been known. A 2012 earthquake risk assessment by the Bayrakli Municipality on the Rizabey apartment building — where Ayda was found — revealed that the building was considered to be very vulnerable in case of an earthquake. 

“The owners of the flats had mostly been living elsewhere, having rented out their flats. We tenants somehow could not get organized and the things remained as they are,” Alican Akgunduz, who had been the manager of the complex, told Hurriyet. Akgunduz’s children, 16-year-old twins Selda and Cinar Akgunduz, died in the quake. 

Though Turkey is known for the 1999 Istanbul earthquake near Istanbul (magnitude 7.6 with 17,118 dead) and the 2011 Van earthquake in the east (magnitude 7.2 with 640 dead), the Aegean coast is a major seismic zone. Izmir has experienced many similar earthquakes, particularly in the 1930s and 1970s.

“We cry for the victims of the earthquake and feel hopeful about the miracles, but the fact remains that the government has done little to prevent earthquakes,” opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu told his party’s parliamentary group Nov. 3. Kilicdaroglu’s statement echoes the worries of some civic groups, including the Chamber of Architects and Engineers, that a 2018 zoning amnesty under which unregistered buildings and additions to existing buildings could be legalized for a fee has created a safety risk in Turkey.

On Turkey’s lively Twittersphere, the tragedy of the earthquake has fueled the fire between conservatives and the fiercely liberal Izmir. Several Twitter users who said Izmir, a city of nonbelievers and adulterers had been “punished” by the earthquake, were taken into custody Oct. 31, Deputy Interior Minister Muhterem Ince said.

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