Emine Akgül: An earthquake 'miracle’. An ongoing struggle.
ANKARA – “When I heard the sound of the rotors, and we started to take off, I told myself, ‘Oh, I'm going to ride a helicopter. I need to tell my family about this immediately,’” Emine Akgül said.
That was the last thing she could remember before waking up in the hospital. Emine was rescued after passing 201 hours under the rubble of her former home in Antakya and she had only a few vague memories of what had happened.
She was transported by helicopter to Adana City Hospital eight days after the Feb. 6, 2023 earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
On the hospital’s rooftop heliport, press members from around the world waited, their cameras ready to capture a glimpse of survivors who had beaten the odds and stayed alive after more than a week beneath rubble, at times in freezing temperatures.
Turkish media used the word mucize for these survivors, meaning miracle.
Each new arrival brought a sense of hope to an otherwise catastrophic disaster. Emine, a 26-year-old teacher from Hatay, was reported as one of these ‘miracles’, but she pushes back against the label.
She said calling her experience a miracle implies one can just smile and walk away after being rescued. For Emine, being rescued was only the start of a long and difficult road to recovery.
“I would prefer to call it mücadele, meaning a struggle or fight,” she said.
Her parents, who had been in the same apartment, did not survive and she was not able to attend their funeral due to her injuries. Emine lost not only family members but also part of her foot, an arm and a city. She faces the consequences of the earthquake every single day.
At the same time, Emine questions why she needed to become a miracle in the first place, saying the label diverts attention away from those responsible for her losses and the suffering of countless people affected by the Feb. 6 earthquakes.
“Who gave the permit to my building? Who was responsible for inspecting it?” Emine asked. “Why did no one have phone service for days? Why didn’t those miners who saved me get into the field sooner?”
Emine is not the only one asking these questions. Many want answers on building permits, including the Hatay public prosecutor, who announced 22,500 investigations had been opened over the last year and have since been merged into 3,500 case files.
Additionally, the prosecutor said 113 people were arrested for construction defects in collapsed buildings in the Antakya and Defne districts of Hatay. Of the 1,700 buildings in which people died, 975 buildings were found to be unlicensed.
While questions of accountability fill her mind, Emine continues to focus most of her energy on her recovery process.
“There is another layer to what happened,” she told Turkey recap. “There is a healing process, a rehabilitation period. You try to be part of life again.”
Recollections from underneath the rubble
When Emine reflects on her time in the rubble, some parts are vivid and other parts float between reality and hallucinations in her memory. The first earthquake hit at 4:17 am. Emine’s family lived on the first floor of their building and she remembers waking up to the quake, but the rest is hard to grasp.
“I was in my room when the earthquake happened,” Emine said. “It was like the ground split open and I went into the ground.”
The bottom three floors of Emine’s apartment building collapsed into each other, pushing her four floors beneath the ground. She said she felt pain for the first 20 seconds, then nothing.
Emine regained consciousness to the sound of her phone alarm at 6 am. She also felt the second earthquake at 1:24 pm. Then, again nothing.
For the next eight days, she drifted between dreams and hallucinations. She had a serious head injury and was pinned underground.
Before the earthquake, she had been planning to marry her fiancé, Barış Barutçu. They already had a house they would move into after marriage.
In her dreams she visited this house, and while there, spoke with other survivors about how they were processing the earthquake and what had happened. She remembers only very small parts of these conversations.
In another dream, she was surrounded by water bottles.
“I saw myself in my room and there were cold, one-liter glass bottles of Erikli water,” Emine recalled. “It was that specific. I even remember the brand.”
In reality, Emine spent eight days without water or food while temperatures dropped below zero at night.
As the days went by and the number of people being rescued alive began to dwindle, many presumed she was dead, including her close friend Şeyma Marşan, who was living in Ankara at the time.
“When the earthquake struck, we immediately reached out to everyone we knew there,” Marşan told Turkey recap. “We were calling, calling, calling. We reached everyone, except for Emine.”
Marşan said she spent the days crying until she got a call from a mutual friend.
“I thought, that’s it, they found Emine’s body,” she remembered. “But my friend said Emine was alive. I screamed like it was the end of the world.”
Rescue crews dug tunnels into Emine’s collapsed building until, suddenly, beams of sunlight entered the dark crevice where she had been stuck. Emine recalled that light, and her rescue, in the form of a dream where she was being lowered down in a bright chandelier.
“While I was being passed from hand to hand, I thought my corpse was being carried,” Emine said. “I uttered a curse under my breath and said, ‘I guess this is my funeral.’”
“Then … the sunlight hit my face. I said ‘Wait a minute … how could I feel the sun if I was dead?”
“No, no, this is not my funeral, I think I'm alive.”
Emine briefly regained consciousness when she was pulled out. A rescue crew of miners had found Emine in pink teddy bear PJs and mistook her for a younger teenager.
“Welcome Emine,” a miner said. “Hoş geldin, sen bizim mucizemizsin – you are our miracle.”
The moments Emine was carried to the ambulance were live-streamed on countless TV channels as a glimmer of hope, but Emine mostly recalled chaos.
“I heard voices like, ‘I will get her out, no we will get her out’,” she said. “Like people were making an advertisement for themselves.”
There were also flash bulbs from cameras going off in her face just minutes after her rescue.
“I remember very clearly what I thought at that moment: ‘Am I an animal?’ Emine said, getting visibly angry.
“I wasn’t able to open my eyes. The inside of my mouth, my teeth, my eyes, my hair, everywhere was covered with stones and soil. I had just come out. I could barely open my eyes, and that light suddenly flashed.”
Then, she was in a helicopter. Most hospitals in Hatay – one of the worst-hit provinces – were either damaged or unable to take patients during the first weeks of the disaster, so many injured survivors were transferred to Adana City Hospital.
The two earthquakes killed 53,537 people in Turkey, according to official figures, and more than 107,000 citizens were injured. According to figures provided by the hospital, they accepted more than 5,000 patients, 780 of whom arrived by helicopter, including Emine.
She spent a total of 55 days in that hospital and had over 40 operations, sometimes two per day.
Her injuries included a deep wound on the left side of her head that had exposed her brain and led to necrosis, or the premature death of cells, in part of her skull. Her left arm was amputated from the shoulder. Her right foot was partly amputated. She also had a severe wound on the back of her left thigh.
In the physical recovery process, she faced many obstacles, some of them bureaucratic.
During her long recovery, an official from the Education Ministry called Emine to ask how she was doing. Previously, she had been working in a public kindergarten. Now, regardless of her condition, she has to confirm she is unable to work every 45 days, in person at a hospital.
There is also no financial support for her prostheses since she chose to get them from a charity project that medical teams recommended for her.
This is why Emine has problems with being called a ‘miracle’.
“There were definitely days that I thought, I wish you would have left me there to die. The recovery process is like that, you have to get over that crisis,” Emine said.
In response, she told herself that focusing too much on her hardships was not an option. Despite the circumstances, she tried to find joy again.
She followed through with plans to marry her fiancé, Barış, who often stayed with her in the hospital. She fought back against darker thoughts as Barış raced her around in a wheelchair.
“Barış always told me to trust him, that we’d leave the hospital holding hands and everything would be wonderful again. I chose to follow his words … because I love life and living.”
“This is what I won’t allow the earthquake to take from me.”
After her hospital stay in Adana, she and her husband moved to Ankara for better access to rehabilitation centers, of which there are many in Turkey’s capital. That’s when Emine decided to start an Instagram account to document and share her recovery.
Emine posts stories about how she’s mastering the use of her prosthetic arm. Though before she received the prosthetic arm, her feed mostly featured videos about doing laundry with one hand or proudly stuffing biber dolması with her special cutting board along with other accomplishments in self-sufficiency.
While followers saw her struggling to walk up and down the stairs only months ago, she recently shared a video of how she went shopping in a mall for the first time.
The posts are mostly heartwarming, though she also shares criticism for the state’s post-quake response.
“I tell [people] how aid didn’t arrive for the first three days, or how I’m angry and ashamed since we consider ourselves lucky after finding the bodies of my mom and dad,” Emine said.
She said some followers are not happy with her stance.
“Some people think that my only goal is to discredit [the state]. But I wouldn’t be a public servant if I hated the state,” she said, recalling her teaching career.
Emine went on to list the inadequacies of earthquake recovery efforts one year on.
“Why do people still struggle to find drinking water in Antakya? Why did they spend the whole summer in tents? Why do people get electrocuted in containers even during the slightest rainfall?”
Today, Emine and her husband support themselves. While she can’t return to work at the moment, she tries to get by on the teaching salary she continues to receive. Her recovery involves regular hospital visits and physiotherapy, which occupy much of her time.
While the challenges continue for Emine and millions of earthquake survivors, the arrival of the one-year mark comes with its own weight. Emine keeps improving physically, but it is tiring, and the anniversary, for her, is a moment of confrontation.
“There is no single answer to what I feel right now,” she said a week before the anniversary. “I don't think it's possible to express it with just one emotion. I can't believe that a year has passed, and it feels like ten years have passed.”
With the anniversary, many survivors think back to the first moments of the disaster, as well as the days before it.
“None of us knew what was going to happen to us,” Emine described her thoughts, explaining it a bit as being stuck in the past. “So, I can't say I feel good. It's difficult right now.”
“I couldn't be at my mother and father's funeral because I was in the hospital. … Now, for this anniversary, my grandmother is planning to do something charitable. Food will be distributed in the village [in the name of the parents]. I need to face this.”
In a regular mourning period, Emine said, one would attend the funeral of the parents and share the pain with people. Such rituals are held on the 7th and 40th day after someone passes away. Now, one year on, Emine will face this loss for the first time.
“We experienced such a common trauma,” Emine said. “We all need therapy.”
Looking back at the past year, Emine said her thoughts remain on what was lost, rather than what remains.
“All that’s lost can not be brought back. Like my parents, who haven't been around for a year,” Emine said.
“For a year now, I’ve had to continue my life with only one arm and one foot … Antakya has been gone for a whole year … The people we greeted on the road have been gone for a whole year.”
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