Turkish teen rescued after six days in fallen building

Monday, February 9, 2004

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- A 16-year-old buried in a collapsed apartment building in central Turkey was pulled alive from the wreckage Sunday -- six days after the disaster.

Muhammet Kalem survived because he was trapped in a pocket formed by pulverized concrete, which allowed him to sleep, kept him warm and reduced his need for water. His father, Ahmet, had so little hope of seeing his son again that he had already dug his grave.

The teenager was the first survivor found since Tuesday.

"I kept hearing the voices of rescuers," Kalem told reporters after rescue workers pulled him out covered in a white film of crushed concrete. "I tried not to lose hope thinking they would eventually find me."

There are about 40 people believed to be buried in the wreckage of the 11-story building that collapsed last Monday in the city of Konya, about 160 miles south of Ankara.

Rescuers found five more bodies in the ruins Sunday as the death toll rose to 71, municipality spokesman Mehmet Yasa said. Kalem's rescue raised hopes that more survivors may still be found.

The head of the rescue team, Omer Cevikbas, said he saw the boy's eyes through a crack.

"We saw that a plastic pipe was moving," Cevikbas said. "When I looked down from an opening, I saw his eyes. It was amazing."

Cevikbas added that the boy "asked what day it was and told us he was hungry and thirsty."

Kalem, who had cuts on his face and body, was taken to a hospital for observation. His doctor, Riza Saribabicci, said Kalem was in good condition but would spend the night in an intensive care unit for observation.

The doctor said Kalem's survival with no food or water for almost six days was "beyond my imagination."

Most people can survive only about two days without water, but Kalem was able to reduce his need for water by sleeping instead of struggling, Saribabicci said. The shroud of rubble covering his body also kept him warm through the freezing nights of Konya.

Kalem's father said he, too, was shocked his son survived. His wife and older son are missing, and he was so hopeless that he had already dug graves for all three.

"I had lost all hope, I still cannot believe it," Ahmet Kalem said. "I thought I would be burying him."

Officials have blamed the collapse on shoddy construction and a Turkish court on Friday charged two contractors, Vedat Kaya and Ismail Canlier, with negligence for ignoring building codes. It was not clear how many years they could face in prison if convicted. No trial date was set. The two will be held by police pending trial.

The building, which was only five years old and considered upscale in Konya, collapsed like an accordion, one floor on top of the other.

Shoddy construction has been blamed for many of the deaths in the 1999 quakes in western Turkey that killed more than 18,000 people. Experts say little has been done to address the problem of poor construction in the country.

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