Earthquake in Turkey: The searching is over. Now there is only the hated screech of bulldozers

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The Independent Online
IT IS the dead that matter most now. And they matter not just to those who wait to mourn them. Everywhere in this land of rubble and human zombies lie the corpses of perhaps 30,000 people who died in under a minute, and the hot rain that began to lash north-western Turkey yesterday was pouring through the crushed buildings that entomb them and down into the ruptured sewage pipes and on into the water table.

Everywhere the high, sweet stench that chokes the nostrils promises that Turkey's nightmare is far from over. Probably the last of the living, a mute woman and a child with a broken face, were brought out early yesterday. The time is over for making choices between searching for the living or cleaning up a 250-mile swath that is now a perfect breeding- ground for disease.

Yesterday there were no sounds of search-dogs barking, no whistles being blown for silence as the listening devices tried to pick up sounds of life. Only the roar of giant bulldozers and the screech of demolition machines could be heard in scores of towns and villages from Istanbul to Adapazari, and grim-faced officials ordered their crews to ignore the frenzy of relatives.

The word, it seems, has gone out from the highest level in Ankara to every mayor and provincial police chief in every affected area: smash your way in and get those bodies out.

They had good reason for this change of policy, which has been endorsed by medical experts from Israel and the US. At dawn the blazing sun and blistering heat had vanished, replaced with great dark clouds and hot winds - and hour after hour the rain poured down.

But though it swept the dust out of the mouths of thousands of exhausted rescuers, it was the beginning of the end of the hopes of those who had waited for six days, praying for the deliverance of their relatives. And it proved that the horror of it all, if anything, could go to an even deeper level.

In a drive along the Sea of Marmara we saw the same scene over and over: groups of people, sometimes hundreds strong, clutching each other in family groups, weeping and screaming, often collapsing, as the steel scoops battered the remains of building. In the structures, some originally 12 storeys and now squashed into layers of less than 20 feet, lay the bodies of their wives, husbands, fathers, mothers and children. If they had survived nearly seven days and nights, they would not survive this kind of onslaught.

In one street in the once-beautiful town of Degirmendere, where officers from the naval base, business executives and wealthy weekenders had their flats, we met a woman who had lost her entire family, three generations, including her two teenage daughters, her husband and her parents.

She sat in an armchair in the middle of the street being comforted by a man in his seventies called Suku Cop, who later found he had lost his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. She screamed each time the bulldozers' steel teeth tore huge chunks from the rubble that had once been her fourth-floor flat. The woman, who was beyond giving family details, was in a near-coma, through exhaustion and grief.

She had been sleeping in the same armchair for six days, watching as the dogs and men with imaging machines had poked and prodded. Now she knew her relatives were dead but she wanted to see their bodies. "She has to see them," said Mr Cop. "I don't know why. Perhaps only women feel that way. I have been here for three days and I try not to look too closely at the stones and the crushed furniture. I could see only my daughter- in-law's green-and-white striped curtains. I just hope when they find them they will cover them up and we will bury them. I do not want to look at them."

To get to Degirmendere we had to drive through the nightmare of Golcuk, perhaps the most savaged community in the quake zone. Streets, some nearly a mile long, have been reduced to canyons of rubble, where, if you care to look too closely, you will see human remains, and parts of human remains, locked into cement slabs, where they were crushed in their sleep at 3am last Tuesday. You can see many strange sights in these grotesque mountains of debris: cars somehow embedded in walls 20 feet up, washing machines hanging from their cables, piles of clothing, children's toys, all mangled into a solid mass thousands of tons in weight.

Yet all around are streets that seem almost normal, although deathly quiet and empty of human habitation. Then you look closer and see huge cracks, some two feet wide, some running the entire length and height of the structure. Apartment blocks seven storeys high have toppled into each other, remaining upright only with the help of their neighbours. Some stand at angles of 30 degrees, some lean over the streets, occasionally pouring out cement slabs which smash on to the hundreds of parked cars already half-wrecked. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to which building came down and which did not. Around the naval base we saw a wall, three feet thick, sliced as if by a giant karate chop.

We had come to Degirmendere for a particular reason. It is the pretty resort town that was hit by a huge tidal wave and at least three great fireballs that came out of the sea and ripped nearly two miles of buildings, an entire harbour and at least one six-storey hotel into oblivion. And it all happened in under a minute.

As we walked down the street leading to the harbour, which was once surrounded by a tree-lined park, we saw that it was the road to nowhere. Nearly 200 metres of the park and the fashionable Koruk Hotel had vanished. Nobody knows how many people were staying there. Divers have reported hundreds of bodies trapped in the building. There is now only a broken half of a road along the shoreline, with the sea - now black and foul- smelling from the wrecked Tupras oil refinery, which exploded and burned for days.

A man who witnessed this strange phenomenon was Bilgin Turkyildri, a sales executive, who was still awake when the big tremor struck. "I looked out of my window and saw the big fireballs coming up out of the sea, as if they had been spat out," he said.

"Then the sea started to vanish, as if it was being sucked out of the harbour below me. I saw ships hitting the bottom, even a few large naval ships. They just sank down suddenly as the water went away. A few seconds later, I saw the great wave coming straight in at a great speed. I would estimate it was at least 16 metres high, and it smashed right across everything, boats, road, walls, buildings, and ran right up the main street.

"I could not believe what I saw. I felt as if I was dreaming it. But when I went out into the street with my family we could not recognise the town we had both been born in. The buildings had just fallen down. The strangest thing of all is that all of the noise, the huge noise, was over in a few seconds. Then there was just the dust and the silence. The park below me had gone, and across the water, about three miles away, I saw the refinery burning."

Mr Turkyildri knows the town well. He believes that up to 10,000 people, out of a population of 25,000, were dead, still inside the collapsed buildings. In the area around the naval base - where the clock is stopped at exactly 3 o'clock - we counted at least 50 large apartment blocks destroyed and perhaps 50 more severely damaged. It was here that we learnt the significance of the thousands of plastic bags, containing 15kg of white powder, that we saw everywhere. The bags, plus black rubber sacks, were being carried everywhere. They contained quick- lime. Each time a corpse, or a group of corpses, was discovered they were sent up the line, up into the mountains of rubble. All over the huge estate scores of patches of white powder could be seen. And workmen, spreading antiseptic on their gauze face masks, emerged coughing and gasping - and many in tears.

We saw another strange sight as the teeth of the demolition buckets came thumping down on huge concrete slabs - the concrete seemed to melt into powder instantly.

"Look at that stuff," muttered Serif Mavis, a construction engineer in charge of demolition. "It is like cheesecake. It is marshmallow. And look at those silly little steel rods that is holding the whole thing together. They are a joke. They are as much use as thread.

"Somebody is going to pay for this. That's if we ever bother to find them. This whole town, and half of Golcuk, is going to have to be razed to the ground. In three weeks there will be nothing left here."

But there will be something left. Perhaps upwards of a million people who now either have no homes, or homes that they will always be too frightened to return to. All along the Marmara Sea great tent cities are rising by the hour. Scores of thousands have made their own tents of carpets and blankets in the squares, the parks and the seafronts. They have food and water, and very few of them are blaming their government at the moment.

The leader of a German aid team made the point quite simply: "No government in the world could have been prepared for what happened that night. This earthquake, at the heart of densely populated industrial region, is one of the most severe this century, and it has destroyed entire communities spread across hundreds of miles."

The survivors pour their rage out for other kinds of men. Like the refrigeration factory bosses who have refused to throw out fruit to take the thousands of bodies. Like the local politicians who have suddenly left town. Like estate agencies, connected politically to the politicians, who are also missing. Like black-marketeers who are selling bottled water at 10 times its former price.

But most of all their bitterness is for the giant bulldozers. It is a quiet kind of hatred, not for the machines or the men who operate them, but for what their roaring means. They now accept that all hope is gone, that thousands of their friends, neighbours and families, are dead inside the rubble. And that the bodies of those people, and the disease that may be fermenting in the homes suddenly turned into vast tombs, have now become their enemy.