Two continents tremble

Earthquake: Turkey's disaster brings out best in other nations' offers of emergency aid.

August 19, 1999

THE EPICENTER of Tuesday's earthquake in Turkey was near Izmit, in Asia. Modern buildings fell 60 miles away in Istanbul, across the Bosporus Strait in Europe.

The earth makes no distinction between peoples. Countries quick to respond with help included those that have kept Turkey out of their European Union.

Greece, traditional enemy and NATO ally, sent dog teams and physicians. Israel, military ally, sent experienced wreckage rescue teams.

Firefighting aircraft from the United States and Israel battled flames that were menacing the Izmit oil refinery. Seawater could not be pumped on the flames because the electricity was gone.

Although the confirmed death toll has passed 3,800, it is clear the real figure is not known because the disruption of roads, phones and electricity made information itself a casualty.

Rescue workers missed precious days reaching collapsed housing in Izmit and the Sea of Marmara port of Golcuk. The big shock was felt not only in Ankara, far to the east, but in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the distant west.

Economic life in much of Turkey came to a halt. Turkey has been trying to open its economy to foreign investment and attract an International Monetary Fund loan to postpone national debt payments. This is a profound setback.

Modern housing was the most lethal. The great medieval monuments of the Greek and Ottoman empires in Constantinople, now Istanbul, were better built and withstood this shock as they had its many predecessors.

The consensus a day after was that this earthquake measured 7.4 on the Richter scale, historically large but hardly the big one of fabled imminence. It showed the danger the earth itself poses to modern civilization. Had it hit nearer the 10 million densely packed people of Istanbul, the toll would have been much higher.

Turkey's army and Red Crescent Society are experienced in earthquake management. Turkey is moving geologically westward at a pace of one-tenth of an inch a year, putting stress on the North Anatolian fault line, causing earthquakes beyond the aftershocks that are now hitting with regularity.

The more that international aid agencies and governments can learn in ameliorating this disaster, possibly the smaller the toll the next time. Humanity is at one in this plight. The big one will hit in another country, maybe our own.

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