Property chief: I am guilty

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TELEPHONE lines to Yalova, the town where Veli Gocer has his offices, were not working yesterday. In any case, the property developer they are calling "Satan" was long gone. Within hours of Tuesday's earthquake Mr Gocer went into hiding to escape the fury of residents whose homes had collapsed. They believe that if the homes he sold them had been built with better materials they might have withstood the devastation.

Now Mr Gocer, a former literature teacher who turned to the financially more rewarding world of property eight years ago, has admitted as much. Phoning a Turkish television chat show from his hiding place, he said: "In the first estates I constructed I used sea sand [a condemned practice which results in weaker concrete]. I think that is why the buildings collapsed. In this respect I have been negligent. I cannot say I am not responsible.

"I have constructed around 3,000 apartments around Yalova. Of these 500 have fallen down because of the earthquakes. If I am guilty I am ready to accept the punishment."

Mr Gocer, whose office and house in Yalova have been smashed by angry crowds, is unlikely to win much sympathy. At one estate he constructed at Cinarcik, a suburb of Yalova, on the southern shores of the Sea of Marmara, 200 died when the buildings collapsed. "It was not reinforced concrete. It was more like sponge," said Ulku Ozer, a director of Istanbul's Chamber of Construction Engineers.

The portly, bearded Mr Gocer, thought to have fled the country, is not alone. With the realisation that the death toll from the quake is likely to be far higher than all initial predictions, people are increasingly turning their anger to the developers responsible for the hastily-erected and poorly-constructed buildings that collapsed like plywood when the quake struck.

More than 100 people died when other buildings in Yalova put up by Yuksel Construction, one of the country's biggest developers, tumbled in the early hours of Tuesday. Among them were the two grandchildren of Hasan Karayamac. "They were both bright children," he said, as he watched their bodies being pulled from the rubble.

There is nothing to suggest the Yuksel estate was poorly constructed, but the public anger in the wake of the earthquake is being directed at all constructors. One of the country's mass circulation newspapers, Sarah, yesterday carried a headline which said: "We did not build houses, we built graves."

Much of the problem with Turkey's poor housing stems from the way that cities have grown in recent decades. Peasants arriving in the cities have erected flimsy unlicensed buildings, known as gecekondus, or "built in a night". To obtain votes politicians offered amnesties for such properties before elections. There have been 10 such amnesties in the past 50 years - two offered by the current president, Suleyman Demirel, during his time as prime minister. In areas such as Avcilar, the Istanbul suburb badly hit by the quake, the deeds for such properties have been sold on to developers who have put up semi-legal and poorly-built apartments on the land.

The level of criticism, plus incidents such as the arrest of four builders for defective work, has led the building industry to fight back. Kadir Sever, chairman of the Turkish Contractors' Association, said: "Following the quake, contractors were the only scapegoat for the disaster, but there are many contractors in Turkey who have proved their worth in international projects.

"That there was no damage to the 70 dams in the quake region shows that we have honest contractors."

But such comments are a rearguard action. With an endless stream of stinking corpses being lifted from the rubble, Mr Gocer may well decide to stay in hiding for a little while yet.