Canadian soccer player Sam Adekugbe is one of the lucky ones. He managed to escape earthquake-ravaged Antakya in Turkey.
Some of his teammates and staff at his club Hatayspor are still missing.
The 28-year-old from Calgary is now safe in Istanbul with Canada captain Atiba Hutchinson, who plays in the Turkish Super Lig for Besiktas. But in a Zoom call Wednesday sitting next to Hutchinson, a sombre Adekugbe told a harrowing tale of being caught in the quake – and the horror of what he saw in the aftermath.
“Unfathomable. Something you never really expect,” said Adekugbe, who looked shell-shocked.
Adekugbe was relaxing at home with some teammates after a 1-0 win over visiting Kasimpasa in a Turkish league game Sunday evening. The quake began as he started cleaning up his home when they left.
He started shaking, which initially made him think he was having a panic attack. Then the furniture and TV began to tip over and cups and dishes smashed in the kitchen.
He went outside to find the road split and people yelling amid freezing rain and lighting strikes. After witnessing the damage around his home, he drove the 20 minutes to the team training ground, seeing the devastation along the way.
“It just felt like a movie. You’re seeing collapsed buildings, fires. People yelling, people crying,” he said. “People digging through the rubble. Broken pieces of houses. Just things you never really expect.”
It got worse the closer he got to the centre of the city, which is located 1,100 kilometres southeast of Istanbul in a region bordered by the Mediterranean and Syria.
“Roads split. Bridges broken. Twelve-storey highrises just completely collapsed. Families looking for loved ones. Parents looking for their kids. Kids looking for their parents. It was just something unfathomable. Something you never really expect.”
Adekugbe says people are still missing, including the team’s sporting director, Taner Savut. There is confusion over the whereabouts of Ghana international Christian Atsu, who was at Adekugbe’s home that night.
Reports of Atsu being rescued are now in doubt, said Adekugbe, who joined the search for survivors after getting to the training ground.
“It’s also people who work around the team,” Adekugbe said.
He says one of the team’s equipment men died in the quake. So did the daughters and mother of a woman who works in the team kitchen.
The wife of another equipment man needs urgent medical attention, facing having her arm amputated if she doesn’t get it.
“Of course I’m thankful that a lot of my teammates have been found. But the people that do help the team, the people who work around the club, they still have loved ones that are missing and unaccounted for. Really it starts to hit home when you just see the agony, the desperation on their faces,” he said.
In the light of day, the horror grew.
“You’re looking through rubble trying to find your teammates. You’re trying to yell for them in like darkened spaces of apartments that used to be standing,” Adekugbe said. “It’s just something you never find yourself doing. People coming back with broken bones. People still missing to this day. It’s something you can’t really explain.”
Adekugbe and some of his teammates managed to get out thanks to his coach, Volkan Demirel, who used to play for Fenerbahce, another Turkish club based in Istanbul. He called the Fenerbahce president who organized a plane departing from a city about a 150-minute drive away.
Adekugbe and other Hatayspor players and staff were bused to the waiting plane, which took them to Istanbul.
“We were very lucky,” Adekugbe said.
“I just grabbed what I could I have three suitcases and my dog.”
Hutchinson was waiting to take him in. Adekugbe had called him in the aftermath of the quake, showing him the damage via FaceTime.
He called his parents when he got to the training ground.
Antakya is renowned for its cuisine, which has many Middle Eastern influences. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has designated Antakya as a “city of gastronomy.”
Adekugbe, who joined Hatayspor in June 2021 from Norway’s Valerenga Fotball, has won 37 caps for Canada and saw action in all three of Canada’s games at the World Cup in Qatar.
Born in London, England, he was three when his family moved to Manchester and 10 when it came to Calgary.
At 16, he moved to Vancouver to join the Whitecaps residency program. He signed a homegrown contract with the MLS team in 2013 but made just 16 appearances for the team over the next four seasons, spending much of the time out on loan.
Adekugbe had loans stints with Brighton in the English Championship and Sweden’s IFK Goteborg before joining Valerenga in January 2018.
While Istanbul escaped quake damage, Hutchinson’s concern for Adekugbe grew when internet connection was lost and a second quake hit.
Both players urged Canadians to donate to relief organizations to help the region and its people.
“There’s a lot of people that are still under the rubble,” Hutchinson said.
“People are just really in bad conditions right now,” he added. “It’s really cold here. Just making it through the day and the night, it’s extremely difficult.”