Hell came in the dead of night. At 3:02 a.m. on Aug. 17, northwest Turkey was jolted from its sleep by one of the century's most catastrophic earthquakes, 45 apocalyptic seconds that reduced parts of Istanbul and several other cities to rubble. As rescue teams arrived from all over the world, the initial death toll mounted to more than 12,000, with 30,000 still missing. But from the destruction emerged heroes—iron-willed survivors who somehow kept themselves alive for days in the wreckage and those who risked their lives to save them. Here are a few of their stories.

Long after he had retrieved the bodies of his sister and her husband, long after the cries from the rubble of their apartment building had ceased, Ismail Yilmaz kept digging. At last, two full days after his world came tumbling down, the 45-year-old bus driver chiseled a hole through a cement wall and found signs of life. Through the darkness, he saw three fingers—little, wriggling fingers belonging to his 7-year-old nephew Mehmet Emin Yazgi. "There's a living person!" Ismail shouted to the gathering crowd. With an iron rod and hammer as his only tools—and a neighbor's clumsy backhoe his only alternative—he knew it would take hours to free the boy and that Emin could be crushed in an instant by a single false move.

Having just arrived in the city of Izmit, near the quake's epicenter, Capt. Danny Bickham and the 70-person Fairfax County, Va., fire and rescue team were setting up their campsite at a go-cart track just 50 yards away when they heard the call for help. Bickham and a few of his men grabbed their gear and sprinted to Ismail's side. Using a specialized search camera, Bickham assessed Emin's plight. Wedged inches beneath a slab of concrete that had landed like the lid of a giant cake tin on the side rails of his bunk bed, the child was dehydrated after his 60-hour ordeal but otherwise unharmed, though the stench of decaying bodies was fierce. The team fed the boy water through a hose, then began chipping away at the concrete. It took rescuers three painstaking hours to reach the child. "I was terrified we might lose him," says Ismail. "But then they made the hole bigger and cut through the railing and pulled him out. I wanted to cry and laugh all at once!"

He wasn't the only one. After 32 years of braving fires and toppled buildings to reach victims, Bickham, 53, admits he is still deeply touched by each salvaged life. "When that little boy came out, it's such a great feeling. I wanted to give him a hug," says the Fairfax County fire captain and grandfather of five. His moment of joy was well-earned. For Bickham and his elite band of U.S. firefighters, who provide emergency relief around the country and overseas at a moment's notice, the shadows of past disasters are never far away. "You hear the same sounds, smell the same smells whether you are in Oklahoma or Africa," says fellow rescue worker Clyde Buchanan, 41. "You start having flashbacks—the smell of death, the jack-hammers, the cranes."

It is all too familiar to Bickham. He joined Fairfax County's international deployment team (Miami-Dade County is the only other U.S. team authorized by the federal government for overseas work) 11 years ago—just in time for the devastating 1988 quake that killed at least 50,000 in Armenia and another that claimed 2,000 lives in the Philippines two years later. Last summer he led rescue squads to the site of the bombed U.S. embassy in Nairobi. But the disaster that haunts Bickham most came closer to home. "Oklahoma City was pretty traumatic," he says of the 1995 federal-building blast that killed 168, among them 19 children and a local firefighter's pregnant daughter, whose body he recovered. "He couldn't stop thinking about it," says his wife, Janet, 52. "He would wake up in the middle of the night and say, 'I could have done it this way—shored up this wall or tunneled that way.' He just couldn't stop. Dan was born to do this kind of work."

Born in Jacksonville, Fla., the oldest of six children of a Navy enlisted man and his wife, Bickham grew up in Brooklyn, Naples (Italy) and suburban Washington, D.C. At 16, he volunteered at Fairfax County's Station 18. Only when it came to girls was his courage sorely tested. It took a friend's dare for Bickham, then a junior at Falls Church High School, to ask sophomore Janet Leavitt for a date. Graduating in 1964, Bickham worked briefly as an apprentice butcher before joining the Navy—and marrying Janet. After a five-month stint as a navigator in the Gulf of Tonkin, Bickham, by then a new father, returned to Fairfax Station 18 as a trainee firefighter. Twenty-eight years—and two more children—later he was made captain.

Bickham became renowned in rescue circles for his valor at home and abroad. But those he left behind were filled with anxiety. "You always wonder when it's going to be his turn," says daughter Becky, 32. "I don't like getting that phone call that says he's going." For Janet, the latest call came at 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 17, when Bickham was at the station. "You know we're going," was all Bickham said. "He came home for radios and necessities, grabbed a chocolate chocolate-chip muffin—his favorite—and then took off," Janet says. "He realizes that every minute you lose, you lose a life."

That was never more true than in Turkey. During their first day in Izmit, Bickham's team rescued four people, among them a 40-year-old woman trapped behind a mattress under a collapsed seven-story building. By the fifth day they knew they would probably find no more survivors. Exhausted by the heat but buoyed by the knowledge that they had saved lives, the Fairfax team packed up their equipment and on Aug. 23 boarded military planes heading for home. Experience has taught Bickham that, for rescuers, these can be the toughest of times. "You try and keep your composure on the scene," he says, "but once things have wound down, you start to think and worry."

For the survivors, too, the initial physical peril may pale compared with what is to come. Ismail Yilmaz has yet to decide how to tell Emin that his parents and two brothers are dead. "When will we tell him?" he asks dolefully. "Once life has become more normal again. Not now."

Anne-Marie O'Neill
Nina Biddle in Izmit, Jane Sims Podesta in Virginia and Kurt Pitzer in Golcuk

  • Contributors:
  • Nina Biddle,
  • Jane Sims Podesta,
  • Kurt Pitzer.