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Turkey

Why Did Only New Buildings Crumble? Hard Questions As Turkey Mobilizes Quake Rescue

On the scene after the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Eastern Turkey on Sunday left more than 300 dead. But some are already wondering why newer, multi-story buildings collapsed, while one-and-two-story adobe structures showed no signs of damage at all.

Protestors took to the streets of Istanbul to rally against the referendum results on April 17.
Rescue teams work to reach survivors of Sunday's quake
ZUMA/Depo Photos
Yalcin Dogan

ERCIS - The kids stare at plates of cold soup and rice. Their eyes are red-rimmed from crying. None of them touch the food. Crouched next to them on the floor, their mother weeps silently. "Their father went to the kahve coffeehouse because it was Sunday. The kahve collapsed...." Her voice trails off. Mother and children begin weeping. "We've been outside in the cold all night," she says.

There is no end to the stream of grief in front of the tents set up by the Red Crescent in the eastern city of Ercis, which along with Van, were the places hit hardest by Sunday's devastating 7.2-magnitude earthquake. One mother grabs hold of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the opposition party CHP. "My child is trapped under the collapsed dorm. Please help," she implores.

I joined Kilicdaroglu as he flew to Van and Ercis by private plane Monday. As the plane neared Van I looked down onto a bright, sunny day. The land around Lake Van, a large salt-water lake that both cities border, appeared verdant and green. It was hard to believe this was where the earthquake hit. We continued from Van to Ercis by police helicopter because the road was partially collapsed and traffic was backed up for miles.

Multi-story buildings collapsed

As we enter Ercis, a city of 77,000, we hear sirens, ambulances, and funeral vans. The back streets are packed with people. The army is trying to control the flow of traffic and maintain a sense of order.

"The problem is with multiple-story buildings. Those with six, seven, eight floors," Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin tells Kilicdaroglu as part of his briefing. "The former mayor, for example, owned a six story hotel that has collapsed. There are 84 villages around Ercis, but in all of those, at most 100 houses were damaged. The interesting thing is that the adobe houses are all still standing."

We all make the same observation as we tour Ercis. It is as if the one and two story buildings in Ercis did not experience the quake, even though they were made of mud brick. It is hard not to wonder why the high rises were built in the first place. State Minister Cevdet Yılmaz, who we ran into later, explains, "The housing prices on the main avenue of Ercis were about the same as those in the heart of Ankara. So lately only high-rises were built." As he speaks, an aftershock moves us from side to side. I look at what is left of a collapsed 7-story building, home to 17 families and a bakery. No bakery or homes are left. Of the 17 families, only four survived. (By Tuesday afternoon, the death toll had climbed above 360)

Minister Şahin tells us that some of the destroyed public buildings were not even owned by the state, but were rented. All of Turkey suffers from a lack of sufficient building regulations. But this time Van and Ercis paid the price.

Water- Power Shortages

The earthquake knocked out electricity poles in many places, and there are communication and transportation difficulties. Water and electricity are sporadic. The official government residence we visited had power but no running water.

At the hospitals, all you see is a steady flow of body bags. It is hard to look. Everything possible is being done to treat the injured under these extraordinary circumstances. As I speak to Minister Sahin and Kilicdaroglu in front of the hospital, we are approached by a man. "We still don't have a tent," he says. The minister tells him to go to the district official who has tents. Everyone has the best of intentions, but a serious lack of coordination gets in the way. Aid doesn't get to the right places at the right time. On the way back, I asked Kilicdaroglu for his impressions and he too mentioned poor coordination.

Aid is pouring from all over Turkey. There are many people, from business owners to Members of Parliament, who are here to help. There is no shortage of supplies, but distribution is a problem. Some places receive no aid, while others receive multiple deliveries. In an attempt to solve this issue, the government appointed Ali Yerlikaya, governor of nearby Agri, to head coordination because the local governor has his hands full. He is calm and matter-of-fact when I chat with him. "Everyone is working hard," Ali Yerlikaya says. "We're sorting the problems out one by one. Everybody has the best of intentions."

Three survivors are pulled out

I witness a rescue operation at a collapsed six-story building, that was home to 20 families, an internet cafe and a shoe store. Nobody knows exactly how many people were in the building when it collapsed. But there are voices coming from inside the rubble. The rescue team tells me they are trying to pull out three survivors.

It is like performing surgery. First the rescue team pulls out four or five cooking pots, followed by other kitchen equipment. Some of the workers have gauze over their mouths. A giant bulldozer sits silently by the ruins, idle as the team works. And then...A huge cry of victory goes up and everyone freezes in place. They have reached a survivor. Now the task is to extract him alive from the debris.

It is a feat that this rescue team has managed to pull off countless times since the earthquake hit on Sunday afternoon.

Read the original article in Turkish.

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