‘We are in shock’: survivor of Turkey earthquake describes aftermath

<span>Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

BJ Richardson, 45, a US citizen who works as a teacher in Gaziantep, near the epicentre of the earthquake in Turkey, describes his experience of the situation unfolding on the ground.

We are all in shock. I walked through a small area of Gaziantep on Tuesday morning. Damage is everywhere – cracked buildings, plaster, broken glass, some buildings have fallen. Each of these buildings represents hundreds of people who are now homeless.

I saw dozens of cars with people or even whole families sleeping in them. Temperatures were freezing last night, below 30F [-1C]. Their batteries, their gas, it will not last.

I’m American and have been living and teaching in Gaziantep for the past seven years.

I woke up at 4.17am when the first earthquake hit. We do get occasional earthquakes but this one was clearly many orders of magnitude worse. And it just did not stop.

I live on the third floor of an old five-storey concrete building, and I was expecting it to collapse. My windows were shoved open, and I could hear glass shattering in the hall as people came running out of their apartments and outside, pretty much as soon as they could, which was not the wisest thing to do, but – you panic.

I stood in my door frame. The first tremor lasted for more than a minute. It felt like an eternity and the whole building was rocking and shaking.

When the initial shock subsided, I grabbed a bag, my laptop, some dry snacks and left my apartment, joining those outside. Many people had just opened their doors and ran outside, in their slippers.

Because of the cold rain and snow on the ground, we soon started filtering inside, but then there was another major aftershock. This is a dilemma many people have been in since yesterday [Monday]. We cannot stay outside all day but it is not safe indoors. I know many people who have spent the entire time in their cars.

At around 8am, I managed to get a taxi, the driver wasn’t charging a fare, and in the backseat were his mother and wife, they were just driving around with him all day.

I made my way to my school, which had opened up the gym – a reinforced steel and concrete building, well-built. Buildings here are built cheap and fast, they don’t have western standards. Most of the buildings here that are still standing – you don’t trust them.

Related: Turkey earthquake death toll prompts questions over building standards

My building manager contacted me around noon yesterday, before the second [earthquake], and recommended not to go back home for the next 72 hours. A mile and a half away from here a building with 13 floors has collapsed entirely. I don’t know if my building is still standing, I’m almost afraid to ask.

There were about 200 people who spent the day and night here at the gymnasium, Everyone has their own horror story. We all know at least someone who has lost their home, was trapped, or worse. Today many people went out to find a way out, check on their homes and pets, get blankets or food. They have no idea what they will do long term. Many roads are completely destroyed or blocked by major accidents.

My friend sent me pictures of his [badly damaged] apartment in İskenderun [120kms from Gaziantep], in a 15-storey building. He and his family are in a shelter, focused on surviving the day, the future is too unbearable to deal with yet.

I’ve been eating rice cakes and chips, there are enough snacks for now, but it’s not enough to last three days. Most shops and grocery stores are closed; we hope they’ll reopen soon so we can get more food supplies. There is a good amount of bottled water for drinking but there is no running water for washing or toilets.

I’m wearing the same clothes I was wearing yesterday, and I’ll be wearing them again tomorrow.

We are in a state of emergency. [The authorities] have requested that only essential traffic be on the roads, to keep them open for emergency or relief workers. They recommended people not go into any buildings deemed unsafe.

Our electricity is coming through a generator, but many gas stations are out of gas and others will follow soon.

The little relief that has arrived has rightly concentrated on the urban centres, but there are dozens of small villages that have been impacted just as severely.

We know it will take a long time to return to normal. I want to be strong, someone my students can lean on, but I need to recharge, too. We just want to survive the next night.