Yet again, Turkey digs frantically for survivors
Saturday 13 November 1999
An earthquake makes a scraping noise, like something massive moving a long way. As it grew stronger and people rushed to shelter under a lintel, as advised, or even rushed into the streets in panic, there was the usual sickening fear: what if it's another big one?
The shaking subsided in Istanbul, which next week plays host to the United States President, Bill Clinton, and other leaders attending the Organisation for Security and Co- operation in Europe summit.
Then the reports from other parts of northwest Turkey started to come in.
Turkey has seen enough flattened buildings, heard too many times the deep wail of grief people make when their life has been shattered in a few moments. Last night they watched and listened again as the sickening television pictures came. Yalova, Izmit, names that meant nothing to the outside world until August. Now we may have to add Bolu and Duzce to the list.
The full extent of the damage from yesterday's quake is not known yet, and it is still possible to hope. The hilly region of Bolu, where the quake was centred, is not as heavily populated as the Maramara region where August's quake hit, and this time the quake was not quite as strong, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale compared with a devastating 7.4 on August 17.
As of last night a total 34 people were reported dead, and 1,000 injured. But everybody here remembers how the death toll started low in August, and rose relentlessly, until it reached 17,000.
"We fear that many people are trapped under rubble," the Turkish Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit, said last night, voicing the fear in everyone's minds.
In the first television pictures, people could already be seen digging with anything that came to hand: shovels, pick-axes, their bare hands. Others just watched in helpless silence.
"God protect us," said Mr Ecevit. Already, 500 are reported injured in the town of Duzce where people were being treated in the hospital gardens because of damage to the building. A doctor there issued a desperate plea for painkillers and medicine, saying the hospital's stocks were almost exhausted. "I am calling SOS for Duzce," he said.
"There is utter helplessness here at the moment," said one eyewitness in Duzce. "Hundreds of buildings have collapsed but there is no one here who can help." Mr Ecevit said emergency crews could not reach Duzce, because of severe damage to the roads.
There were similar cries for help from Bolu. "We need rescue crews and ambulances," said the provincial governor. The police chief said that the road to Istanbul was destroyed, and begged for help from Ankara live on television by telephone.
This quake will bring its own problems, too. The last big quake came in the summer, when the homeless could sleep in the streets. Those who lost their homes last night may have to spend the bitter November nights in the open. Already, they could be seen crowding round fires on television last night, wrapped up heavily. To make matters worse, Bolu's hills bring it cold winters.
The same anger that ripped through Turkish society in August is bound to surface again: anger at the greedy constructors who throw up sub-standard housing, and the authorities who do not stop them. It was telling that the Housing Minister was dispatched to the disaster site alongside emergency teams.
It was telling, too, that Mr Ecevit emphasised that the military was sending help. The Turkish armed forces were heavily criticised in August, as soldiers stood by while the people dug in despair.
The disaster came even as Turkey is preparing for its hour of pride at the OSCE summit on November 18 and 19, proof of Turkey's place as a Western ally. Officials last night insisted the summit and a visit to the country by the US President would go ahead. President Clinton leaves for Turkey tomorrow.
There were also concerns about possible repercussions on today's football qualification match for Euro 2000 in Dublin between Turkey and Ireland.
Chillingly, Turkey's leading seismologist, Ahmet Mete Isikara, said that this was not an aftershock from August's quake. That leaves Turkey wondering how many more quakes it will face, how many more it will lose to these convulsions of the earth.
And when will the Big One hit Istanbul, a desperately crowded metropolis of 12 million citizens, full of substandard buildings?
DIARY OF DISASTERS
Nov 12: A quake destroys hundreds of buildings in the town of Duzce and causes deaths.
Nov 11: One man dies and 88 are injured as they leap from buildings when a tremor hits Istanbul.
Nov 7: Two tremors are centred on Hendek.
Oct 5: More than 100 are injured by a quake centred near Marmaris.
Sep 29: A quake strikes the town of Yalova.
Sep 13: An aftershock has its epicentre in the western Turkish city of Izmit, 55 miles southeast of Istanbul.
Aug 17: A violent earthquake measuring 7.4 strikes Izmit, killing at least 17,118 people.
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