Turkey probes contractors as earthquake deaths pass 33,000
ANTAKYA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish authorities are targeting contractors allegedly involved with buildings that collapsed in the powerful Feb. 6 earthquakes as rescuers found more survivors in the rubble Sunday, including a pregnant woman and two children, in the disaster that killed over 33,000 people.
The death toll from the magnitude 7.8 magnitude and 7.5 quakes that struck nine hours apart in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria rose to 33,179 and was certain to increase as search teams find more bodies.
As despair bred rage at the agonizingly slow rescue efforts, the focus turned to assigning blame.
Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said 131 people were under investigation for their alleged responsibility in the construction of buildings that failed to withstand the quakes. While the quakes were powerful, victims, experts and people across Turkey are blaming faulty construction for multiplying the devastation.
Turkey’s construction codes meet current earthquake-engineering standards, at least on paper, but they are rarely enforced, explaining why thousands of buildings toppled over or pancaked down onto the people inside.
Among those facing scrutiny were two people arrested in Gaziantep province on suspicion of having cut down columns to make extra room in a building that collapsed, the state-run Anadolu Agency said.
The justice ministry said three people were under arrest pending trial, seven were detained and another seven were barred from leaving Turkey.
Authorities at Istanbul Airport on Sunday detained two contractors held responsible for the destruction of several buildings in Adiyaman, the private DHA news agency and other media reported. The pair were reportedly on their way to Georgia.
One of the detained contractors, Yavuz Karakus, told reporters: “My conscience is clear. I built 44 buildings. Four of them were demolished. I did everything according to the rules,” DHA quoted him as saying.
Rescuers, including crews from other countries, continued to search in hope of finding more survivors who could yet beat the increasingly long odds. Thermal cameras were used to probe piles of concrete and metal, while rescuers demanded silence so they could hear the voices of the trapped.
A pregnant woman was rescued Sunday in hard-hit Hatay province, 157 hours after the first quake, state-broadcaster TRT said, while HaberTurk television said a woman was found alive after 160 hours Nurdagi, Gaziantep
HaberTurk showed the rescue of a 6-year-old boy removed from the debris of his home in Adiyaman. The child was wrapped in a space blanket and put into an ambulance. An exhausted rescuer removed his surgical mask and took deep breaths as a group of women could be heard crying in joy.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca posted a video of a young girl in a navy blue jumper who was rescued. “Good news at the 150th hour. Rescued a little while ago by crews. There is always hope!” he tweeted.
Rescuers pulled out a man in Antakya, hours after hearing voices in the rubble. Workers said the man, who appeared to be in his late 20s or 30s, was one of nine still trapped in the building. But when asked whether he knew of any other survivors, he said he hadn’t heard any voices for three days.
The man weakly waved his hand as he was passed hand to hand on a stretcher as workers applauded and chanted, “God is great!”
German and Turkish relief workers rescued an 88-year-old from rubble in Kirikhan, German news agency dpa reported. The efforts of Italian and Turkish rescuers also paid off when they found a 35-year-old man from the wreckage in the hard-hit city of Antakya. He appeared unscathed as he was moved by stretcher to an ambulance, private NTV television reported.
Overnight, a child was freed in the town of Nizip, in Gaziantep, state-run Anadolu Agency reported, while a 32-year woman was rescued from the ruins of a eight-story building inAntakya. She asked for tea when she emerged, according to NTV.
In Kahramanmaras, near the epicenter of the first quake, workers tried to reach a survivor detected by dogs beneath a now-pancaked seven-story building, NTV reported.
Those found alive, however, remained the rare exception.
A large makeshift graveyard was under construction in Antakya’s outskirts on Saturday. Backhoes and bulldozers dug pits in the field as trucks and ambulances loaded with black body bags arrived continuously. The hundreds of graves, spaced no more than 3 feet (a meter) apart, were marked with simple wooden planks.
Hatay’s airport, where the runway was damaged, reopened Sunday, the transportation ministry said, which should help to get aid into the region.
There are 34,717 Turkish search-and-rescue personnel involved. On Sunday, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said they have been joined by representatives from 74 countries, totaling 9,595 personnel. Eight more countries are expected to send search-and-rescue teams with 874 personnel, it said.
The head of the World Health Organization warned that the pain will ripple forward, calling the disaster an “unfolding tragedy that’s affecting millions.”
“The compounding crises of conflict, COVID, cholera, economic decline, and now the earthquake have taken an unbearable toll,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters from the Syrian capital of Damascus.
Tedros said WHO experts were waiting to cross into the northwest of Syria “where we have been told the impact is even worse.”
U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths, visiting the Turkish-Syrian border Sunday, said Syrians have been left “looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”
“We have so far failed the people in northwest Syria. They rightly feel abandoned,” he said, adding, “My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.”
Political disputes have held up aid convoys sent from areas of northeast Syria controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish groups to those controlled by the Syrian government and by Turkish-backed rebels who have fought with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces over the years.
A U.N. aid convoy set to northwestern Syria through government-held areas was postponed due to obstruction from Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliated group ruling Idlib province, a U.N. spokesperson told The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, UN aid convoys continue to cross from Turkey into northwestern Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.
The first U.N convoy only reached northwest Syria from Turkey on Thursday, three days after the disaster struck.
Before that, it was only a steady stream of bodies coming through Bab al-Hawa: Syrian refugees who had fled the civil war and settled in Turkey but died in the disaster, being returned home for burial.
The earthquake death toll in Syria’s northwestern rebel-held region has reached 2,166, according to the rescue group the White Helmets. The overall death toll in Syria stood at 3,553 on Saturday, although the 1,387 deaths reported for government-held parts of the country hadn’t been updated in days. Turkey’s death toll was 29,605 as of Sunday.
Turkey’s Justice Ministry announced the establishment of Earthquake Crimes Investigation bureaus to identify contractors and others responsible for building works, gather evidence, instruct experts including architects, geologists and engineers, and check building permits and occupation permits.
A contractor was detained Friday at Istanbul airport before he could fly out of the country. He built a luxury 12-story building called Ronesans Rezidans in Antakya, and when it fell, it killed an untold number. He was formally arrested Saturday.
In leaked testimony published by Anadolu, the man said the building followed regulations and he did not know why it didn’t stay standing. His lawyer his client was a scapegoat.
Due to government amnesty programs that have allowed contractors to pay fines instead of bringing buildings up to code, the government agency responsible for enforcement acknowledged that over half of all buildings in Turkey — accounting for some 13 million apartments— were not in compliance.
The detentions could help direct public anger toward builders and contractors, deflecting it from local and state officials who allowed apparently substandard construction to proceed. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, already burdened by an economic downturn and high inflation, faces parliamentary and presidential elections in May.
Rescue crews have been overwhelmed by the widespread damage that has affected roads and airports, making it even harder to move quickly.
Erdogan has acknowledged the initial response was hampered by the damage. He said the worst-affected area was 500 kilometers (310 miles) in diameter and home to 13.5 million people. During a tour Saturday, Erdogan said such a tragedy was rare, referring to it as the “disaster of the century” in multiple speeches.
Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Abby Sewell in Beirut and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed.