Turkey requisitions private gear to hasten post-quake cleanup

Deaths at 12,018, as search in some provinces halted

August 22, 1999|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Scrambling to gain control of a disjointed relief effort, the government requisitioned all private construction equipment, hearses and heavy trucks yesterday to speed removal of the dead and the wreckage left by the earthquake in Turkey.

The order came as the confirmed death toll reached 12,018 and governors of three of the nine quake-stricken provinces called off the search for survivors under thousands of collapsed buildings.

If enforced, the order would challenge a vast but chaotic effort by private volunteers stepping forward -- some with forklifts and cranes -- to save or assist victims of Tuesday's quake who felt abandoned by the authorities.

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, in his first televised address since the quake, defended the government's sluggish rescue operation against angry grass-roots criticism. He said the top priority is to curb the spread of disease and shelter the homeless.

Condemning "negative and cruel" Turkish media scrutiny of official inaction, Ecevit said: "We will overcome this disaster, but we need to trust the strength of our nation and state and deal with the problems in unity."

Army and civilian rescue teams were hindered for two days, he explained, because the magnitude 7.4 quake, centered near Istanbul, damaged communications and roads between Turkey's stricken industrial heartland and the rest of the country.

"Acting speedily to limit the sudden losses of life caused by such a destructive earthquake so close to a densely populated area would surpass the power of any government," the 74-year-old prime minister said.

With an estimated 30,000 quake victims missing, United Nations officials say the death toll could exceed 40,000. The disaster has caused billions of dollars in damage and, Turkish commentators say, an erosion of public confidence in the country's leadership.

Many people in the quake zone said yesterday that they had not seen any Turkish relief workers. They have been relying on untrained volunteers and hoping that some of the 2,200 search-and-rescue specialists sent here from 51 nations would show up to direct them.

Ecevit promised to set up a national earthquake early warning agency and "emergency intervention" force based in Istanbul. He also vowed tighter enforcement of building codes and heavier punishment of violators.

Police in the city of Eskisehir, 70 miles south of Izmit, arrested three construction company owners and one architect for questioning about slipshod building practices that led several tall apartment complexes to collapse in the quake.

The temblor struck at 3: 02 a.m. local time, while most of the victims slept. Ecevit said yesterday that 60,000 buildings collapsed or suffered irreparable damage. The United Nations estimated that up to 200,000 people were left homeless.

U.N. relief specialists said the quake spread its destruction over an unusually wide area, 175 miles long and 20 miles wide, from Istanbul west to Bulu and as far south as Bilecik, making it one of the century's greatest in terms of range.

In the Turkish government's defense, they said the breadth of the stricken zone made it difficult to identify the hardest-hit areas quickly and rush help there.

"Not many Western European countries could have coped better under the circumstances," said Jesper H. Lund of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Provincial governors in Bulu and Yalova, on the Marmara Sea, ordered an end to the search for survivors yesterday, and the governor of Sakarya province set today as a deadline.

Authorities in those areas were eager to get on with the job of bulldozing and trucking away the rubble -- a wholesale clearing that will expose more corpses and accelerate the confirmed death toll.

A requisition order by the government required all private institutions and companies to surrender their hearses, repair vehicles, excavators, loaders, bulldozers, cranes, trucks with capacities of more than 12 tons "and other useful equipment" to local governors by today.

Officials said they were considering pouring lime on mounds of rubble and roads crossing through stricken areas to prevent outbreaks of disease and to stifle the stench of putrefying flesh.

Lime would hamper rescue efforts, but some authorities argued that time is running out for those trapped in the rubble.

"I would guess that after tomorrow, any cases of survival will be miraculous and very few," one relief official said last night.

U.N. officials said rescuers pulled 10 people alive from the rubble yesterday, including a 9-year-old Israeli girl; an 11-year-old Turkish girl, Merve Ekinci; and a Turkish woman said to be 95.

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