Quake death toll nears 4,000

Amid frantic searches, outcry over shoddy buildings, regulation

19 countries lend rescuers


ISTANBUL, Turkey -- More than 1,000 relief workers from 19 countries joined the frantic search yesterday for victims of Tuesday's devastating earthquake as grieving survivors raised an outcry over shoddy construction practices and lax government regulations.

Although rescue workers continued to find people alive under the rubble of collapsed buildings, the death toll climbed steadily: By last night, according to an official count, 3,879 bodies had been recovered. More than 16,000 people were listed as seriously injured.

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said rescue teams had been unable to reach some areas because roads are impassable and communications disrupted.

"We are facing the greatest natural disaster in the history of the Turkish Republic," Minister of Public Works and Housing Koray Aydin told Parliament. "For the first time, we have had an earthquake that affected the area where 45 percent of the Turkish population lives."

Foreign help is especially vital because early rescue efforts by the Turkish authorities have been troubled by inexperience, poor organization and lack of supplies. In some stricken towns, newly arrived foreigners found no organized rescue effort under way and took charge themselves, directing battalions of eager volunteers.

News commentators pilloried the government for what they said were inexcusable lapses, both in preparing for an earthquake that scientists said was sure to come and in dealing with it after it struck.

Several experts blamed unscrupulous contractors and ineffective inspectors for having contributed to the scope of the catastrophe by allowing the construction of flimsy buildings that could not withstand a quake.

The epicenter of the quake was near Izmit, about 55 miles east of Istanbul. There, a high number of the destroyed buildings were built within the past five years.

In Darica, a suburb of Izmit, the central shopping area reopened more or less normally yesterday. The weekly street markets bustled, selling everything from fruit to shoes. Yet on a hilltop perhaps a mile away, three of five identical apartment buildings had been flattened.

Fatal earthquakes are common in Turkey, occurring about once every two years. But most strike the rugged and sparsely populated eastern provinces. This one hit the country's densely populated industrial heartland, the region southeast of Istanbul.

Some neighborhoods in Istanbul itself were also damaged, but Tuesday's quake was not the enormous one that some scientists say is likely to strike this teeming metropolis sometime in the coming decades.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake had a preliminary magnitude of 7.8, but downgraded that to 7.4, one of the strongest of the century anywhere in the world. Turkish seismologists also put its strength at 7.4.

No new aftershocks occurred yesterday, but many Turkish families in the earthquake zone have chosen to remain in tents or other outdoor shelters for a few more days.

With so much effort being made to rescue those who are believed still alive, there has been little time to assess long-term damage. But television footage from many towns showed utter destruction that will certainly cripple Turkey's effort to climb out of the economic troubles into which it has fallen this year.

Teams of rescue workers arrived steadily at the Istanbul airport yesterday. Officials carrying clipboards wandered through the arrival lounge asking passengers, "Are you rescue people?"

Among emergency workers who arrived yesterday were 70 from the United States, most of them firefighters who rushed to Izmit, where the country's largest oil refinery burned through the day as emergency crews awaited specially equipped French and German planes that were used to extinguish oil well fires after the Persian Gulf war.

Nearly every European country sent money, relief workers or equipment, including Greece, which is Turkey's principal rival in the eastern Mediterranean.

The largest foreign contributor so far has been Israel. Turkey and Israel have forged a strong strategic partnership over the past few years, and Israel is evidently anxious to show that it can be a good friend when Turkey is in need.

Turkey sits atop some of the world's most unstable geology. Scientists said Tuesday's earthquake was along the Anatolia Fault, a 100-mile arc that winds beneath northwestern provinces near Istanbul.

"This Anatolia fault zone is quite complex, but certainly the possibility of an even bigger earthquake, even one in Istanbul, is still there. Most probably we will get a lot of lessons from this quake. We have to, otherwise we will suffer the same thing in the future," said Ahmet Mete Isikara, director of an observatory in Istanbul and a leading specialist on earthquake risk.

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