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A couple in Turkey, pinned under earthquake rubble, survived the ordeal

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria came when many people were asleep. That helps to explain why almost 40,000 people are reported dead. NPR's Daniel Estrin met a man who survived.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Ali Kafadenk was sleeping in bed with his wife, Merve, when their six-story apartment building started to shake. We met him in the street outside a mountain of rubble.

ALI KAFADENK: (Speaking Turkish).

ESTRIN: He says his wife poked him and woke him up, saying there was an earthquake. He said, no, it'll pass. Then two opposite walls caved in, making sort of a concrete tent over their bed. It was so low, they couldn't sit up. He spoke to my interpreter.

KAFADENK: (Through interpreter) We were stuck under the walls, some - with a shape of, like, an upside-down V. And that's what protected us.

ESTRIN: What were you thinking when you were stuck in that small space?

KAFADENK: (Through interpreter) We thought that we would die. That was the only option. We thought, like, any minute, there's going to be something that's going to come crashing down on our heads.

ESTRIN: This is one way several people did survive the earthquake, a Turkish emergency response team told us, a wall tipping on to something and leaving a small triangle void for someone to survive in. The cold weather also helped. Survivors didn't sweat as much, which delayed dehydration.

KAFADENK: (Speaking Turkish).

ESTRIN: Kafadenk and his wife, Merve, were only there an hour and a half. But it was terrifying and claustrophobic. He threw himself over his wife to protect her.

KAFADENK: (Through interpreter) We were saying to each other that we came from God. We will go back to God.

ESTRIN: Then he heard his building sink and the earth move.

KAFADENK: (Through interpreter) It was a sound that I'd never heard before. It feels like it's a supernatural sound. It was something like really strong and loud and low thunder. It's something like the sound that we hear in the sci-fi movies.

ESTRIN: The building was still shifting and crumbling. Floors above them fell into the street. Somehow, there was an opening. It was too dusty to see. He felt it - snowy, cold air. And that is when he heard his neighbors' screams. My baby's stuck here. My leg is stuck there. My mom is under here, and my dad's over there.

KAFADENK: (Speaking Turkish).

ESTRIN: Kafadenk and his wife also shouted. And that is when someone pulled them out. Someone else gave him a pair of shoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

ESTRIN: Now, Kafadenk is staying with family out of town. He's back here for the first time since the earthquake.

KAFADENK: (Speaking Turkish).

ESTRIN: He says, "seeing it, it feels like I'm living through all of it again. I'm feeling fear, sadness and loss." He says only two other people in the building survived, out of dozens. He and his wife are schoolteachers, and they can't reach their colleagues. He thinks they've died. One of the few things he could recover from the building were letters of appreciation from his students. He wonders how many of them survived.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Islahiye, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.