Turkish expat Refik Agri waited in quiet dread for five hours as he got nothing but radio silence from his family after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake ripped through his home country.
Agri, who now calls Torremolinos home on the coast of Malaga, watched helplessly as videos quickly emerged on social media from survivors of the first quake showing the utter devastation.
“I watched my hometown being decimated building-by-building,” he told the Olive Press.
Agri is one of 18 siblings, and they all live in Iskenderun and Antakya, in the Hatay province of Turkey, close to the Syrian border and just 200km from the epicentre.
Finally a text came through from his niece: ‘Uncle, I don’t know how but all of your brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews – we are all alive, don’t worry’.
Agri said that in total his immediate family are about 500 people, and miraculously not a single one of them is among the 41,000 people confirmed dead, as of February 15.
“When I received that message it was like when water is released from a dam and I just started crying uncontrollably,” Agri said.
“We are 18 siblings and I have no idea how many nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews I have.
“We are probably 500 people in just my immediate family and we don’t have a single death – is that a miracle or what.”
Equally remarkable was the survival of Agri’s niece Serap Sert and her family.
The 38-year-old, with her husband Murat and two children Emre, 21, and Sila, 18, fled barefoot into the freezing cold just as their entire apartment building collapsed on February 6.
Inside the complex were eight levels and 32 apartments – the Sert family are the only people from that building alive today.
“I talk to her and she tells me ‘uncle, I don’t know how we got out, I don’t know how we are alive’,” Agri said.
The retired financial advisor also described one of his nephews as the ‘luckiest man alive’.
“He grabbed his family and led them to the door when he realised his five-year-old daughter was not with them,” Agri said.
“So he stops them all and says ‘either all of us are going to die or all of us are going to live’.”
Agri’s nephew went off into the darkness in search of his daughter, found her and brought her back to the door when the staircase they were about to use to escape collapsed off the side of the building.
“Had they continued, my nephew, his wife and three children would all be dead – that five-year-old saved all of their lives,” Agri said.
The family eventually climbed out to safety.
Agri left Iskenderun when he was 18 to study at university in Bursa, in northwestern Turkey.
He then lived in the United States for 30 years where he worked as a financial advisor before retiring and moving to Torremolinos in 2021.
Agri tries to stay in touch with his loved ones every day, but poor reception in the disaster zone makes it extremely difficult.
More than a week since the deadly earthquake struck he said his family members are still reporting aftershocks.
“There are thousands of mounds of rubble that haven’t even been checked yet for survivors,” Agri said.
“You can’t walk past a lot of them because the smell of dead bodies is so bad, and then at others you can hear noises and screams but everyone is too busy trying to save their own family.”
Many people left homeless, including Agri’s niece Serap, are living in tents on the streets.
Those whose houses didn’t collapse are not even sleeping inside out of fear their buildings will tumble, he added.
But despite the death, destruction and all of the tears Agri has shed the past week he said witnessing how his compatriots were helping one another gave him hope Turkey would recover.
Heroic videos and stories of people pulling family members, friends and strangers from underneath mounds of rubble have captured hearts across the globe.
Many countries, including Spain, have sent teams of volunteers to join the efforts to rescue people.
“The division in the country right now is so horrific and so deep, but this has caused people to wake up and realise their real culture and real humanity,” Agri said.
“Spain is my home now and I can’t see myself ever leaving, but that doesn’t mean I won’t ever stop loving my beloved Turkey and they will get through this.”
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