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Turkey earthquake survivor recounts how he lived off tobacco under rubble

Viral video of Soner Tugtekin emerging alive with a cigarette in his mouth brought hope to many, but his wife and daughter died in the disaster
Soner Tugtekin emerges from the rubble with a cigarette in his mouth (Social media)

Soner Tugtekin, a 58-year-old man, was rescued 48 hours after a double earthquake hit the Turkish city of Adiyaman, emerging from the rubble with a half-smoked cigarette in his mouth.

Videos of Tugtekin smoking as he lay on the stretcher went viral, with online users saying he had given them a reason to smile amid the tragedy.

As rescue workers pleaded with him to let go of his cigarette, Tugtekin swatted them away with the grit and confidence of a man who had escaped death. 

"I only had tobacco and 1.5 litres of water with me. My lighter ran out of gas due to smoking too much. I couldn't light my cigarettes,” he explained to Turkish media on Wednesday. 

Adiyaman was one of the areas hit hardest by the earthquakes. Rescue efforts there have been criticised for a lack of urgency.

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"We were shouting for help. When the answer came, I started to light the cigarettes one after the other,” said Tugtekin. “That's why I had a cigarette in my hand when I went out.”

Undaunted by his situation, Tugtekin said that when the lighter fluid ran out he resolved his “fire problem by smashing the batteries of the [TV remote] controller and making a fire by crashing the cables together". 

After his escape, Tugtekin refused to go to hospital for treatment. 

“I didn't want to go to the hospital because I didn't want to leave my Hatice,” said Tugtekin, referring to his wife, who was trapped in the rubble with their daughter. 

“I slept on the pavement until the fourth day, when my wife’s lifeless body was removed," he said. Tugtekin also lost his daughter in the earthquake. 

Ongoing rescue operations

Rescue operations across the worst-hit regions in Turkey are still ongoing, with miraculous stories emerging of survivors being pulled out 10 days after the earthquake.

A 74-year-old woman, Cemile Kekec, was rescued alive from the rubble in Kahramanmaraş 226 hours after the earthquake. 

Turkish television showed Cemile being carried on a stretcher to an ambulance, covered in a thermal blanket. 

A few hours before that, a 42-year-old woman was rescued from the rubble of a building in the same city, almost 222 hours after the devastating earthquake that hit the region last week.

With elections just months away, the government has vowed that it will continue operations for as long as needed, and that it is looking to move quickly to compensate victims and start to rebuild destroyed city centres.

However, the prospect of finding more survivors is increasingly unlikely.

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