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180pxl.gif (2691 bytes)Life in Istanbul the First Few Days After the Kocaeli, Turkey  Earthquake

by Natali Sigaher, Doctoral Student, Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, University at Buffalo navyhr.gif (1032 bytes)


I had just gone to bed – thanks to a late night movie – and I was still awake. At about 3:00 a.m., I felt strong shaking and heard the glass doors of a bookshelf rattling. I had experienced a few moderate earthquakes before, in Istanbul and in the Prince Islands (in Marmara Sea). During those earthquakes, I remained still until the end of the quake; but this time, the shaking was so strong and noisy that after a moment’s hesitation, I jumped out of bed. My mother and I pulled my father out of his bed, who had woken up but was too afraid to move. Next, we secured ourselves by standing near the columns of the bedrooms. In the meantime, the electricity went out. After the main shock, just as I was preparing to look around the apartment, another shaking – as strong as the first one – started. I wondered why it lasted so long and afterward, I was frightened that the building might collapse. When it finally ended, my father lit a torch to provide light inside the house. I plugged in the telephone that did not require electricity and called my sister. I was able to reach her after a couple of attempts, as the telephone lines were damaged, too. She said she and her husband had already left their apartment and were in their car. Then I called a Turkish friend in the U.S. at the University at Buffalo. Shortly after I made these calls, the telephone lines went down completely. At about 3:30 a.m., we went to our neighbor’s apartment on a lower floor. About 4:30 a.m., we decided to leave our apartment building because the aftershocks were frequent and strong. By that time, my sister and her husband had joined us.

The roads were as crowded as if it was daytime. People were trying to get information from their radios, but most channels were on automatic broadcasting. Finally about 5:00 a.m., it was announced that an earthquake had happened in Istanbul and vicinity and that the magnitude was 6.7. At that time we did not know how destructive the earthquake had been. Later that day we returned home, the electricity was on and off, telephone lines were very busy and there was no water. I tried to follow the news from TV – the epicenter was Izmit, and the earthquake had effected seven cities/suburbs, including Istanbul, Izmit (Kocaeli), Golcuk, Adapazari (Sakarya), Yalova, Bolu, and Eskisehir. About 1/3 of the population of Turkey is concentrated in these areas. There were scenes of collapsed buildings and panicking people. At that time, there was no information about any organized rescue efforts.

The earthquake struck the heart of industry in Turkey. A fire was burning at the largest refinery "Tupras" (near Izmit). This was very dangerous because the refinery had about 30 tanks, and is surrounded by similar facilities (LPG, natural gas). There are also many large factories like Pirelli, Otosan, in close proximity to the epicenter.

As I watched the news that day, the extent of the damage started to appear more clearly. It was advised that people whose buildings had been partially damaged should spend the night outside. Although we could not detect any damage, we decided to spend Tuesday night outside, like most people.

On Wednesday, many foreign rescue teams arrived – with trained sniffer dogs. There were also foreign planes to battle the fire in the refinery. It became clear that the damage was tremendous, and the number of dead and injured people seemed to increase every other minute. Most hospitals in the disaster area had been damaged and had difficulty accommodating patients.

On Thursday, rescue efforts had become more organized. The efforts of civilians (AKUT and local people) in the first two days following the earthquake were especially noteworthy. They consisted of volunteers who were involved in both rescuing people and taking donations to the area. By this time, many foreign teams (including from Israel, US, Russia, France, Germany, Italy and others) had started working day and night along with Turkish military forces and rescue teams.

Unfortunately, the death toll and number of injuries were rising rapidly. Local hospitals were full and most patients were either treated in open areas or transferred to hospitals in nearby cities. In the first few days following the earthquake, the rescue teams did not want to use heavy equipment to remove the rubble because it could hurt trapped survivors, but this made the process too slow to be effective. Meanwhile, the weather was very hot (~35oC), which meant that the dead bodies under the rubble were decomposing quickly. Precautions such as spreading lime over collapses and infectious areas were taken.

On Friday, we bought blankets, paper towels, toilet paper, water, cookies, etc. and gave them to a donation truck. In the afternoon, I met with Dr. John B. Mander, who was representing MCEER as part of the EERI reconnaissance team. We joined the rest of the EERI team and I accompanied them on the next day’s site visit. Naval Base.jpg (73753 bytes)


At 5:45 a.m. Saturday, we were on our way to Golcuk. The busses that took us there had stickers written "Earthquake Relief Team" on them and belonged to a Turkish businessman, Rahmi Koc. Our group consisted of about 24 people – the EERI team and a team from Turkish universities. We visited the factory "Ford-Otosan" at Karamursel, Golcuk. We could see the surface trace of the fault, and how one side of the ground had settled 50 cm to 4 m deep. The welding shop, which was very close to the faultline, was damaged. Next, we went to Golcuk Naval Base. I watched some of the rescue efforts on one of the totally collapsed buildings (see Figure at right) and talked to a soldier. He said that only half of the bodies of almost 120 people had been recovered so far from that building and there were only a few survivors. He also pointed to another totally collapsed building, which used to be the dormitory, with an estimated 70 people inside. No rescue had been attempted at the dormitory yet. We also saw the open-air hospital inside the naval base. The fault passed through the navy base, and the totally collapsed buildings were very close to it. We then visited the docks, which were also heavily damaged. On the other side of the bay, we could see the fire at Tupras refinery; the heavy smoke weakened as the fire was finally put out.

Next, we visited Degirmendere, where the soil had collapsed along the shore, burying many buildings inside the sea. There was a large amount of donations sent to the disaster area, (Figure at left) but unfortunately there was no systematic distribution. I saw a street full of clothing and shoes. We returned to Istanbul at about 9:00 p.m.

Donations.jpg (86785 bytes)This was a major disaster for Turkey and recovery needed extensive effort and time. In the meantime, some points require special attention:

The North Anatolian Fault, which is the cause of this earthquake, is a very well known and active fault. The history of movements along this faultline in the last 60 years indicates that this recent earthquake was expected. It was not an unlucky event or part of faith that only God can decide. Unfortunately, the public is not educated or warned enough about earthquakes – this was not the first nor will be the last. In the future, the public can pay more attention to the engineering aspects of their homes. Even in the most damaged areas, there were intact buildings adjacent to totally collapsed ones. This is not because the earthquake hit one building stronger than the other, but simply due to bad construction. There should be strict enforcement for all engineered projects to make sure good construction practices are implemented on site. Contractors should be educated to understand that the profit they make by using less/low quality construction materials can easily cost human lives.

The first few days after an earthquake are very important for survivors in the rubble. Their chance of survival without food and water is less than that of a normal person, considering that they have difficulties breathing and most probably have bleeding injuries. Therefore, rescue teams trained only for this purpose should be ready to act immediately. Unfortunately, after this earthquake, there was considerable delay in the organized rescue efforts.

In short, we must learn how to live with earthquakes and take necessary precautions.


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