CELTIKSUYU, Turkey – Fikret Nimetligil spent three days identifying the bodies of his students pulled from the rubble of a school dormitory that collapsed in last week's earthquake.
On Sunday, the teacher's work ended when rescuers recovered the last of 83 children killed in the 6.4-magnitude quake in Turkey (search) Thursday. Working around the clock since then, rescuers saved 115 children, most just after the tragedy.
"Some people have lost one or two children. I have lost 80," Nimetligil said. "For every child there is a different memory."
He said many of the bodies were recovered with their hands over their faces, evidence that they had tried to protect themselves when the four-story dormitory came crashing down.
"I could see the last moments of their lives," he said.
The last two bodies found Sunday were those of 14-year-old friends Cihat Avci and Alican Celik, who often played soccer together.
The two were crushed in bunk beds as they slept when the quake hit around 3:30 a.m.
Ahmet Avci, Cihat's father, said he hadn't given up hope until his son's body was found. He even believed he heard his son calling for help on Friday.
The dormitory was part of a boarding school for the children of poor Kurdish farmers from surrounding villages that have no schools. Avci's village of Gokcelikoyu lost 11 children.
On Sunday, he sat with his fellow Kurdish villagers after Cihat's funeral.
"I regret I ever sent him there. I sent him to his grave," Avci said.
Dozens of people, some crying, stood in the school yard to thank the rescuers, who quietly collected their equipment Sunday morning. "We will never forget you," one man said.
The earthquake killed 167 people and injured 1,000 in the region, according to officials in Bingol (search), the main city hit by the quake. About 300 buildings collapsed and more than 5,000 were damaged.
"As of now, the search for survivors has ended," said Ahmet Yilmaz, a spokesman for the government's earthquake crisis center in Bingol.
Authorities were investigating whether the dormitory collapsed because it was poorly built. Turkey has suffered several massive quakes over the past decade, but experts say little has been done to address the problem of shoddy construction — blamed for many of the 18,000 deaths from two massive quakes in western Turkey in 1999.
Search-and-rescue operations however, have improved significantly since 1999, when the government was criticized for its lagging and disorganized rescue efforts.
"We've never seen this degree of experience, mutual understanding and cooperation to deal with a disaster before," said Maj. Oguz Toprak, who headed a newly established team of military rescuers and coordinated the rescue operations at the school.