'Unfathomable agony': Canadian soccer star on the horror of living through the Turkey earthquake

Former Vancouver Whitecap Sam Adekugbe lives and plays in Antayka, a city in Turkey that was one of the hardest hit by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that ripped through the region on Monday. He lost friends and teammates, and many are still missing.

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It wasn’t late when Sam Adekugbe got back to his house on Sunday with a few of his Hatayspor teammates. But they were all buzzing, still high on the adrenalin rush and unable to sleep after Christian Atsu had scored in the 97th minute to give them a 1-0 win over Kasımpaşa.

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After they left a few hours later, he sat down, and the world began to shake.

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Adekugbe’s first thought: He was having a panic attack.

“Then it just kept getting more and more severe. I started hearing chaos in my kitchen, plates and cups and everything flying off, then the table falling over, the TV falling over,” said the Canadian men’s international and former Vancouver Whitecaps player.

It was the first of two earthquakes that hit central Turkey and Syria. The city where Adekugbe lives — Antakya, in Hatay province — was one of the worst hit, with entire neighbourhoods flattened.

The death toll is at 11,000 and sure to climb higher. There are still around 150,000 people missing — including Atsu, who was at Adekugbe’s house that night. Despite reports of him being rescued from the rubble, Atsu is still missing.

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A man uses a flashlight to check damaged buildings, in the aftermath of an earthquake, in Antakya, Turkey, Feb. 8, 2023.
A man uses a flashlight to check damaged buildings, in the aftermath of an earthquake, in Antakya, Turkey, Feb. 8, 2023. Photo by GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE /REUTERS

When the shaking stopped, Adekugbe went outside into freezing rain, lighting and more chaos. People were yelling, screaming, roads were buckled and broken.

Not knowing what to do, the 28-year-old got in his car to make the 20-minute drive to the Hatayspor training ground.

“It just felt like a movie. You’re seeing collapsed buildings, fires, people yelling, people crying. You’re seeing people digging through rubble, broken pieces of houses … things you never really expect.

“As I started driving closer towards the training grounds … you started seeing even worse. Roads split, bridges broken, 12-storey highrises just completely collapsed. Families looking for the loved ones, parents looking for their kids, kids looking for their parents, and it was just … unfathomable.”

It was now early morning, and the light of day exposed the apocalyptic scene that had been hidden by darkness and rain. Antakya was a ruined city. There was joy as teammates trickled into the training ground, but sombreness as some names didn’t.

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Sporting director Taner Savut is also still among the missing. It’s tragedy that left no one unscathed, even if physically unharmed.

“People are missing, people are still missing (now). There’s no internet service. It was just hard to comprehend, and then throughout the day, you’re just trying to help people, and look for your teammates,” Adekugbe said by Zoom from Istanbul, where he was staying with Canada teammate Atiba Hutchinson.

“Then you start to see just even how much more devastating it is. You’re looking through rubble trying to find your teammates, and trying to yell for them in darkened spaces of apartments that used to be standing … it’s just something you never (thought you’d) find yourself doing. It’s something you can’t like really explain.

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“It’s also people who work around the team. One of my kitmen, it turned out he died. One of the ladies who works in the kitchen, she lost her daughters and her mother,” he added.

“One of my other kitmen, his wife, she needs like urgent medical care but because the hospital was destroyed, she doesn’t have it.

“It really starts to hit home when you just see like the agony and the desperation on their faces. Also, living in a place where it’s not the most super economic power … they’re already coming from difficult places, and with everything taken away from them, it’s unfathomable how much more difficult it is.”

Sam Adekugbe and Atiba Hutchinson.
Sam Adekugbe and Atiba Hutchinson. Photo by Martin Bazyl/Canada Soccer /PNG

Hutchinson was the first call Adekugbe made in the early hours of the morning, FaceTiming him from his ruined home. Hutchinson was only woken up by his call, not any tremors, as Istanbul was spared the quake’s wrath. With power and internet connectivity erratic, Adekugbe was in and out of contact, but managed to let his parents know he was safe.

He made it to Istanbul with three suitcases and his dog, after Hatayspor’s coach, Volkan Demirel, called the president of his former club, Fenerbahçe, to arrange a plane for his players. They flew out of Adana, about an hour away by bus.

Demirel’s tearful plea for aid has been replayed on social media and newscasts around the world as the international community slowly comes to grips with the scale of destruction in Turkey and Syria.

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Hutchinson and Adekugbe are doing whatever they can to help.

“It’s a difficult time here in Turkey,” said Hutchinson. “You know these people so well, and what they have given to me and what they’ve done for my family … and just to see the state of what the country is going through right now, and how much hurt … it’s just a tragedy.

“What’s important for us … is just get the message out to everybody in Canada of what Sam and I are trying to do in terms of getting help and getting donations.

“People are just really in bad conditions right now and it’s really cold here. Just making it through the day and the night, it’s extremely difficult. We’re just doing whatever we can to get the message to Canadians.”

The two have partnered with Red Cross and a Turkish platform, AHBAP.org, which is raising money for disaster relief.

For more information on how British Columbians can help, click here.

[email protected]


People walk past a building affected by an earthquake in Antakya, Hatay Province, Turkey Feb. 7, 2023.
People walk past a building affected by an earthquake in Antakya, Hatay Province, Turkey Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE /REUTERS

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