Before Monday’s earthquake, the old town of Antakya, known historically as Antioch, had been a wonderfully preserved labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets on a gentle hill rising from the river. Beautiful houses with peaceful courtyards had been turned into restaurants and hotels, where people sipped tea and smoked under the shade of trees.
I had spent a couple of days in Idleb, northwest Syria, where I oversee operations as the country director for the HALO Trust, the landmine clearance organisation, and had decided to spend the weekend in Antakya before leaving for Gaziantep on the Turkish/Syrian border. That whimsical decision to stay in Antakya, and the choice to get up in the middle of the night for an early flight, were two of many factors that almost certainly saved my life.
I woke at 3.15am on Monday and made tea before my taxi arrived. It was raining torrentially, but the roads were empty. There was a lot of standing water and I felt the car aquaplaning now and then as we hit big puddles. The highway was very smooth, and the taxi was in good condition. So, it was peculiar when, for a few seconds, the car started wobbling.
Hatay is a small airport in open ground away from the town of Antakya. A single terminal building, modern with a high roof, and a small car park. I was one of the first to check in and go through to the departure lounge. From previous visits, I knew there were only a couple kiosks selling hot drinks but none was open, so I sat down in a seat next to the exit door. At that point, there were probably only half a dozen passengers in the departure lounge.
When the building started shaking, I looked at the woman opposite. Within a couple of seconds, the violence soared and her eyes filled with terror.