Photo of a child's schoolwork page drawn with a heart on the top in the rubble of the earthquake in Turkey

Debris and rubble from a building in Elbistan, southeastern Turkey, after a massive earthquake this week.

By Jacqui Banaszynski

The details are what always hold me.

The numbers matter, of course. Horrible numbers that matter horribly. I follow them as they rise. When the news of the shallow earthquake broke on Monday, devouring a vast patch of Turkey and Syria, the first number I heard was 4,300 dead. Soon it was 5,000. Then 9,000 and 11,000. As last week ended, the count was 22,000; as this week began, it was estimated at 35,000 with countless more uncounted.

I try to imagine those numbers applied to people on a scale I understand. Thirty times the number of people in my village when I was a child. More than three times the number of students at my alma mater, Marquette University; now more than those at the University of Missouri, where I taught until recently. The numbers become an abstraction; the lives they represent are anything but.

So I return to the details. The baby born under the rubble. The Turkish journalist who stopped to carry a child and tried to calm her fears. The applause — applause — for the tireless rescue crews working in a situation reality that defies rescue. And the picture above.

The caption that came with it on the AP Newsroom site was appropriately fact-based. Date. Place. Facts that have been verified; none that haven’t. It described “a sheet of paper (that) rests on the ground among the debris of a destroyed building.”

I look at it and see a story, one I don’t know but can easily imagine. A child — a girl, I think, perhaps wrongly — curled over her homework, working a lesson in vocabulary or grammar or contractions. It’s the kind of scene that plays out in her life every evening. Maybe it’s after dinner. Her mother is in the kitchen cleaning up. Her father helps her brother with math. Maybe a baby fusses in another room. Maybe she’s giggling over the work with a friend, laughing about kiwi.

Everything is the same. Then nothing ever will be again. The happenstance of the broken heart she colored at the top of the page shatters me.

The numbers matter, horribly. I closed my eyes in gratitude when a show host from National Public Radio stated a recent number with a simple reminder that each one represents a life lost, a story begging to be told.

Journalists can’t tell all of them. That job will be left to the survivors when they are able. But what journalists do at times like this, as the numbers rise and rise, is to stop us now and again with a detail that holds us — a detail that becomes the story of one which isn’t, and now is, the story of all.


A version of this post was first published as a Nieman Storyboard newsletter on Friday Feb. 10, 2023.

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