Some foreign rescue teams began pulling out of Turkey today as the government shifted its efforts from searching for survivors of last Tuesday's staggering earthquake to making way for bulldozers to clear the rubble.
Foreign search workers said officials had suggested they leave, even though some people are still being found alive in the ruins of collapsed buildings -- including a 3-year-old boy who was rescued today. Government officials denied the claims, although they conceded that the search for the living is winding down nearly a week after the quake devastated a wide section of northwestern Turkey.
A number of search teams, including a large one from Dade County, Fla., are still at work in cities hit by the quake. Some rescue workers said they had simply ignored suggestions that they wrap up their work, arguing that it was premature to abandon efforts to locate survivors. The rescuers' complaints reinforced the widespread impression that Turkish authorities have mishandled the emergency response to last Tuesday's disaster.
As of this evening, the official death toll passed 14,000, with possibly thousands more bodies still buried. The government has asked the United Nations to help supply 45,000 body bags, according to Sergio Piazzi, head of the European desk at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva. "We are shifting from the search-and-rescue phase to the acute emergency phase," Piazzi told reporters in Geneva. "But still we have hope to find some individuals alive."
Harry Oakes Jr., an American K-9 search-and-rescue specialist, said he was among more than a dozen international rescue workers, including Europeans and Japanese, who were told late Saturday that their services were no longer necessary in the devastated city of Sakarya, 100 miles east of Istanbul. British rescuers also said they were encouraged to leave over the weekend and ultimately did so, the Reuters news agency reported.
"They're thinking, `Thanks for coming, but let us get on with our lives,' " said Oakes, of Portland, Ore. "In Kobe [Japan], Mexico City, the Philippines, each one of these cities had survivors 10 to 14 days after [quakes there]. So why not here?"
A Turkish search leader said his team had been told by the government that it risked being stranded in Sakarya for months if the city were quarantined because of spreading disease.
A large American contingent from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department was scheduled to fly home early Tuesday. The U.S. Agency for International Development, which coordinated the American rescue efforts in Turkey, said the Fairfax team is leaving because they are exhausted. Kim Walz, a USAID spokeswoman, said no one has asked the Fairfax crew to leave.
The government denied it had invited any foreign rescuers to depart. "This is a baseless rumor," Deputy Health Minister Haluk Tokcuoglu told Reuters. "The rescue teams have come close to the end of their work because the chance for survivors is dimming. We haven't told any teams to leave the country."
Experts say people trapped in earthquake rubble normally can survive for about four days, possibly a bit longer, after which time most succumb to dehydration.
Hundreds of foreign aid workers have poured into Turkey since the quake, and some of them have complained about a general lack of coordination and preparedness on the part of Turkish officials. Others have said the Turks are doing their best under exceptionally difficult circumstances, including a crippled communications system and transport troubles. Nonetheless, suggestions that the government is fumbling have been intensified by a number of decisions and remarks by Health Minister Osman Durmus.
Durmus, a nationalist politician, has been quoted as saying that foreign medical assistance is unnecessary and is reported to have turned down offers of help from Greece, Armenia and the United States, including a hospital ship offered by the Pentagon. He has denied the reports.
However, asked about European aid workers' comments that the afflicted towns lack portable toilets and adequate hygiene facilities, Durmus said that Turks are perfectly capable of using toilets in mosques and bathing in the sea.
There is a widespread impression among people here that decomposing corpses in the rubble may cause an outbreak of disease, and this may have contributed to a desire to bulldoze the ruins of thousands of collapsed buildings.
Relief workers have been sprinkling powdered lime over building sites where bodies are thought to be entombed. Rescue workers have complained that the lime, which is used to kill bacteria and reduce odor, enflames the eyes and noses of search dogs, rendering them useless.
Public health experts say, however, that contaminated water poses a far greater threat than decomposing bodies. So far there have been no major outbreaks of disease, although warnings of cholera, dysentery and typhoid persist.
Despite a public outcry over the official response to the quake, there has been no sign that the government is in danger of falling. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has said the government was simply overwhelmed by the dimensions of the quake, and President Suleyman Demirel has pledged that firm measures will be taken to prepare for future disasters.
"I want to tell my people that there will be better coordination among state institutions," Demirel said Sunday.
Staff writer Eric Wee in Fairfax contributed to this report.