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In Turkey, the focus shifts from rescuing earthquake survivors to recovering bodies

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The death toll from the earthquake in Turkey and Syria continues to rise. At least 20,000 people are dead. And the quake hit an area covering hundreds of square miles, collapsing thousands of buildings. NPR's Jason Beaubien is near the epicenter of the quake in Turkey. He says the focus now is on recovering bodies rather than rescuing survivors. And we'll note, this story, for about three minutes, contains disturbing descriptions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE RUMBLING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Turkish).

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: As a rescue team carries a black body bag out of a debris pile that was once a multistory apartment block, a group of women wail with grief.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Crying).

BEAUBIEN: Workers hold back a young man who lunges at the bag, wanting to see if it's really his mother. An old woman collapses on the ground in tears. This is just one family in front of one rubble pile in a landscape of collapsed buildings. Scenes like this are unfolding across a vast swath of southeastern Turkey and northern Syria. It's been more than three days since the quake hit when most residents were sleeping. Many people here in Kahramanmaras, commonly known as Marash, have accepted that they're waiting for their loved ones' bodies rather than their loved ones themselves. Getting a full body back to bury would be a blessing. Others say they'd take anything - a scarf, a shoe. Hakton Saka is sitting on a pile of debris, watching local volunteers pull blankets and steel bars out of another pile that used to be his sister's seven-story apartment building.

Did they find any people in here alive?

HAKTON SAKA: (Through interpreter) Yeah. Very few people.

BEAUBIEN: Saka says through an interpreter that he's accepted that his sister, brother-in-law and their child are gone.

SAKA: (Through interpreter) Right now they're not looking for rescue. They're looking for funerals.

BEAUBIEN: Prior to Monday, the city of Marash had just over a million residents. Now most of the center of the city lies in ruins. Work crews with bulldozers and backhoes cut valleys through the fields of debris. Swollen black body bags sit waiting for collection in front of some of the rubble piles. The quake also knocked out the electricity and running water. People huddle around open fires to stay warm. Others are sleeping in their cars. The air is filled with dust, wood smoke and the distinct stench of rotting flesh. One woman describes the current scene in her city as apocalyptic. Some help is arriving. In an open lot next to what used to be a major shopping mall, there's now a soup kitchen in a large, white party tent.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLATTERING)

BEAUBIEN: Bulent Yildirim is with a local Turkish aid group that's providing hot meals to residents and rescue workers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Turkish).

BULENT YILDIRIM: Lentil soup.

BEAUBIEN: In just a matter of days, local aid groups have arrived and are handing out food, blankets, toilet paper. There are piles of bottled water lining the main road. A tent city has gone up in a soccer stadium. What's missing are so many people. Fifty-five-year-old Nuriye Comru says so many of her friends and relatives are dead, she can't even say how many were killed in the quake.

NURIYE COMRU: (Through interpreter) Firstly, from family, four people died. But from the relatives, five people in one building, seven people in one building. So she's not able to count right now.

BEAUBIEN: Her hands are bloodied and bandaged from digging through the rubble to search for her son. Miraculously, on Monday, hours after the quake, searchers found Comru's 2-week-old granddaughter in the debris. The baby girl is named Alper. She's alive, and she's healthy. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kahramanmaras, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien
Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.