Focus now on living as rescue hopes disappear

A series of small white flags hanging limply from the tops of tangled heaps of concrete and steel is the sign that all hope has…

A series of small white flags hanging limply from the tops of tangled heaps of concrete and steel is the sign that all hope has been surrendered.

Civil defence workers toured Yalova, a once pretty resort town on the Sea of Marmara yesterday, placing the flags on any mound where was no hope that people could be pulled out alive. They are a sign to the mechanical diggers to move in and flatten the piles of rubble.

In the worst areas, where whole streets of collapsed buildings rise 60ft into the air, the JCBs have already started their work. They poke and scrape roughly at the concrete and steel but nothing emerges except a storm of dust. There is no expectation or hope in the eyes of onlookers as they gaze mesmerised at the brutal power of the digger buckets.

A fleet of lorries has begun ferrying the debris to the port in Yalova, for dumping at sea. One can only guess how many bodies will go undetected with it.

After five days, the rescue efforts following last Tuesday's earthquake have turned a corner. Gone are the scenes of frantic rescue and public woe of last week. Virtually all hope of finding survivors of the catastrophe that hit Yalova is extinguished. The focus has now moved to the needs of the thousands of survivors, still camped along the promenade of the town.

On the ferry back to Istanbul, Japan's rescue emergency team are taking pictures of each other, or snatching brief moments of exhausted sleep. They pulled out of Yalova yesterday after four days of frustration and heartbreak, but not before a desperate through-the-night search early yesterday for people who might just have survived more than 120 hours entombed without food and water.

This last-gasp effort drew a blank. Corpse after corpse emerged from the collapsed buildings, but no one living. Since they arrived on Thursday, the team managed to rescue just one person alive, a 70-year-old woman.

Ironically, the efficiency of the rescue operation has improved greatly. The Turkish Red Crescent has put up hundreds of tents to house the homeless. Heavy digging and lifting equipment is available in sufficient number. The streets are being swept, and the rubble heaps are sprayed regularly with disinfectant.

In the main sports stadium, a temporary field hospital has been established and is treating the lightly injured and the sick. Teams of volunteers are sorting through the masses of drugs, food and clothes that ordinary Turkish people have donated.

"Our work with the victims is finished today," says Dr Seraf, of the Turkish army. "From now on, we have to try to help the people who are still alive.

Still, three people, two of them children, were found alive on Saturday, and there is still some hope, he says.

Life in town is getting back to normal. The power is out but the banks have brought in generators to power their teller machines. Shopkeepers were cleaning out their stores in preparation for reopening today.

Down in tent city on the seafront, people wait for news of what will happen to them. "I and my family have no complaints; people everywhere have been good to us," says Burhan Erim, a recently retired policeman, in front of the white teepee which is now his home.

Like many of Yalova's residents, Burhan was lured by promises of cheap accommodation for people retiring from work in Istanbul, an hour across the water. He only learned last Tuesday how cheap the accommodation was, as his building groaned and then listed severely.

He escaped in his pyjamas and hasn't dared return. "I would like to take my things but I am told if I even moved a television it could fall. Now we are waiting on advice from the government to see what can be done."

The weather has stayed fine for a week now, though afternoon temperatures are nearly unbearable. However, rain is likely soon, and the housing problem needs to be tackled urgently.

There are plans to make use of the now-empty refugee camps set up earlier this year near the Macedonian border for ethnic Albanians fleeing from Kosovo. But a more likely solution is to put up pre-fabricated shelters for the homeless in advance of a huge building drive later in the year.

But finding the money for this is only the first problem.