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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Turkey widens investigation into contractors as quake toll rises

A partly collapsed building in Adiyaman, Turkey, on Saturday.

By Ben Hubbard, Safak Timur and Gulsin Harman

Turkey vowed Sunday to “meticulously” pursue contractors linked to deadly building collapses in last week’s earthquake as rescue workers pulled more bodies from the rubble and anger rose at the swelling death toll.

The 7.8 magnitude quake Feb. 6 caused widespread destruction in 10 provinces in southern Turkey as well as in northern Syria, and killed more than 33,000 people. More than 1 million people have been rendered homeless in Turkey, and many others have been left without shelter in Syria.

Amid the destruction, the attention in Turkey has turned to what earthquake victims and building experts have called inferior construction that left people’s homes particularly vulnerable to collapse. The government has started to respond.

Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag told reporters Sunday that 134 people had been detained and seven others barred from traveling abroad on charges related to collapsed buildings.

“We will follow this up meticulously until the necessary judicial process is concluded, especially for buildings that suffered heavy damage and buildings that caused deaths and injuries,” Vice President Fuat Oktay told reporters in the capital, Ankara.

Two contractors responsible for collapsed buildings in the city of Adiyaman, Yavuz Karakus and Sevilay Karakus, were detained Sunday at Istanbul Airport, the state-run news media reported. They carried more than $17,000 in cash and were planning to fly to Georgia.

“My conscience is clear,” Yavuz Karakus told reporters after his arrest. “I built 44 buildings; only four have collapsed.”

The Turkish Justice Ministry has set up earthquake crimes investigation bureaus in the affected areas, Oktay said, and prosecutors will be appointed to bring charges against contractors and others connected to poorly constructed buildings that collapsed, often killing their residents instantly and leaving others buried in the ruins in near-freezing temperatures.

Murat Kurum, the environment minister, said that more than 24,000 buildings across the quake zone had been heavily damaged or had collapsed in the quake, based on an assessment of some 170,000 buildings.

The quake destroyed buildings and damaged infrastructure on both sides of the border, but while aid for Turkey has flowed in from around the world, almost none has reached northern Syria because of the complex political situation after more than 12 years of civil war.

The death toll rose above 29,000 on Sunday in Turkey and more than 3,500 in Syria, a combined figure that makes the quake one of the century’s deadliest natural disasters.

The Turkish government has mobilized an enormous aid effort, with tens of thousands of rescue workers and volunteers from around the world digging through the rubble of collapsed buildings for bodies and, occasionally, survivors. The government has also erected tent cities for residents whose homes were destroyed and is distributing food, medicine and other items.

But largely because of political divisions on the ground in Syria, which is much poorer, aid efforts are severely lagging. The earthquake caused heavy damage in areas controlled by the government of President Bashar Assad and in enclaves controlled by anti-government rebels who are backed by Turkey.

Assad, considered a pariah by much of the world for his troops’ brutality in the civil war, has sought to have all aid sent through his government. That aid, critics say, is then routed to his loyalists.

Only one border crossing into the rebel-held areas, Bab al-Hawa, has been authorized by the United Nations for the transit of aid shipments, but it has yet to become a major channel. The Syrian Red Crescent received permission to send 14 trucks from government-held areas into the rebel-held Idlib province, but Sunday, the convoy appeared to be tied up. Even if it goes, the cargo would be minuscule in comparison with the needs.

On Saturday, authorities in Turkey began arresting contractors who had built structures that collapsed after the quake.

They included Mehmet Ertan Akay, the licensed builder of a collapsed complex in the city of Gaziantep, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter and violation of public construction law, a Turkish news agency reported. The Gaziantep prosecutor’s office said it had issued the detention order after inspecting evidence collected from the rubble of the complex he had built.

Mehmet Yasar Coskun, the contractor who built a 12-story building in Hatay province with 250 apartments that was completely destroyed, was detained Friday at an Istanbul airport while trying to board a flight to Montenegro. Dozens of people are thought to have died when the building collapsed. Coskun told prosecutors his building had been properly licensed and audited by local and state authorities, according to the state-run Anadolu News Agency. His lawyer suggested the main reason he had been detained was to assuage public anger.

Two builders of a collapsed 14-story building in Adana, who reportedly fled Turkey immediately after the quake, were detained in Northern Cyprus, according to the Turkish-controlled Northern Cyprus administration.

Turkey, which suffered a powerful earthquake in 1999 that killed more than 17,000 people, has upgraded its building codes since to make buildings more earthquake resistant.

But quake survivors and building experts say that the codes are often not followed.

Bugra Gokce, an urban planner and senior official in the Istanbul municipality, said in an interview that focusing on only the contractors missed all of the other people who may have failed in their duties, allowing for a subpar building to be built.

“This is a system problem,” he said.

While most of the search effort in hard-hit Turkish cities Sunday focused on finding and removing bodies, unlikely rescues were made.

In Hatay province, a team from Romania removed a 35-year-old man alive from a pile of rubble 149 hours after the quake, the CNN Turk television station reported.

“His health is good; he was talking,” one of the rescuers told the station. “He was saying: ‘Get me out of here quickly; I’ve got claustrophobia.’”

In another rescue broadcast live on HaberTurk television, a 6-year-old boy was pulled from the ruins of a building in the city of Adiyaman 151 hours after the quake.

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