This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 30, 1999
Earthquake Devastates Turkey
In the devastated western Turkish town of Korfez last week, Kemal Bekci, 39, stood in front of a five-storey building that was leaning oddly sideways. "I lived here for seven years," he said, shaking his head in disbelief. Then he added, almost in a whisper: "My two sons died." Bekci recounted how he had jumped out of a window when the world's worst EARTHQUAKE in a decade rumbled and heaved through the town. But he watched helplessly as his wife, carrying his one-year-old son, perished when a section of the building collapsed. "My 17-year-old son also jumped from the window but landed on his head and died," he said, his voice trailing off.
A few blocks away, several men leaned out of a precariously tilted structure and salvaged what they could. "The state did nothing for three days," shouted 38-year-old Ekrem Unen angrily, as he helped. "My brother was buried under the rubble - we heard him," he said, pounding a fist into a hand. "But we couldn't get to him. By the time the soldiers came and pulled him out, he was dead."
Days after the quake, measuring a powerful 7.4 on the Richter scale, levelled a broad swath of Turkey's populous industrial heartland, rescuers were still swamped by the magnitude of the disaster. By week's end, at least 12,000 people were confirmed killed, but some 33,000 were still believed buried - and if so, most were probably dead. As Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit sadly put it: "It is not possible to reach all of them." Yet, amid the grim rescue effort, there were a few miracles. After nearly 100 hours entombed in rubble, a nine-year-old Israeli girl and a 95-year-old Turkish woman were pulled out alive in Valova, just south of Istanbul.
The quake was centred in Izmit, a city of 500,000 where the country's biggest oil refinery caught fire. The destruction ranged through an area containing 20 million people, including parts of Istanbul, the country's biggest city. As aid poured in, Turkey mobilized 50,000 soldiers for the rescue effort.
Even so, many Turks were angry at the chaotic initial response by authorities. When Turkish newspapers lambasted the government in Ankara for making no statement about the quake on the first day, President Suleyman Demirel replied lamely that he wasn't able to reach Istanbul by telephone to get information. Many local and foreign aid officials said there was little co-ordination in the rescue efforts until at least the third day. Local facilities were overwhelmed. "There's no room in the hospitals," one nurse told Maclean's. "I've worked for 24 hours. There's no medication." Part of the problem, according to Richard Van Hazeprouck, a member of the UN Emergency Assistance Operations unit, was the enormity of the tragedy. "Let's face it, you have 30,000 to 40,000 people dead, and untold property damage," he said. "This is a major catastrophe."
Critics also charged that the extent of the devastation was due to shoddy construction. "Of course the buildings collapsed," said Fikret Erturul, a construction worker in Korfez. "If you go to the municipality, you can pay for a permit to make a house out of straw. I know because I've built those houses. I couldn't say anything because I'd lose my job." The government responded by asking Islamic priests to deliver sermons castigating anyone building substandard housing.
Officials accelerated burials to prevent the spread of disease. In the hard-hit city of Adapazari, government workers put 963 bodies in a mass grave, taking pictures of the dead for later identification. Dozens of aftershocks rocked the country after the earthquake, leading thousands of people to stay outside in fetid streets, risking infection. "You have people digging in the rubble and touching decomposing bodies with their bare hands," said Marie-Françoise Borel, a Montreal native who is with the International Red Cross Societies in Istanbul.
Canada initially gave $100,000 to the Red Cross. As the extent of the disaster became clear, Ottawa pledged another $1 million through the Canadian International Development Agency for medical assistance, temporary shelter and help in reuniting families. CIDA will also send thousands of tarps and tents, along with water purification tablets. Two expert firefighters from Red Deer, Alta.-based Safetyboss Canada, who spent 10 months battling the blazes of Kuwait's refineries after the Gulf War, arrived in Izmit to help fight the oil blaze. On the weekend, transport planes carrying the Canadian Forces' 200-member Disaster Assistance Response Team left CFB Trenton to join the rescue effort. The team includes a 45-member field hospital unit capable of tending 500 outpatients a day, and about 40 engineers who can provide water, power and construction services. They could find themselves helping their own compatriots: only about half of the 405 Canadians registered as living in the earthquake area had been accounted for last week, according to foreign affairs department officials.
The Turkish Embassy and Turkish community centres across Canada were deluged with queries from frantic relatives and friends who could not reach loved ones in the devastated region. "It's terrifying," said Goksin Yilmaz, who moved to Toronto from Izmit 10 months ago with his wife. "We have no news." Turkish community groups said they were awash in offers from Canadians of cash and volunteer work. "The response has been great," said Kevser Taymaz, president of the Turkish Canadian Cultural Association in Ottawa. "It brings tears to our eyes when we think of all the offers of help." For her devastated homeland, no amount of aid will be enough.
The Century's Worst
The feared death toll of 45,000 or more in Turkey's earthquake would make it one of the two worst of the decade, rivalling northwestern Iran in 1990, when more than 40,000 died. The most deadly quakes of the century:
Tangshan, China, 1976, 255,000 killed
Gansu, China, 1920, 200,000 killed
Nanshan, China, 1927, 200,000 killed
Yokohama, Japan, 1923, 143,000 killed
Messina, Italy, 1908, 83,000 killed
Gansu, China, 1932, 70,000 killed
Northern Peru, 1970, 66,000 killed
Soviet Armenia, 1988, 55,000 killed
Maclean's August 30, 1999