In the early morning hours of Aug. 17 at Kandilli Observatory at the edge of this city, Ethem Gorgun was expecting another tranquil shift. In the eight months the 23-year-old had worked as a technician at the seismic monitoring center, an array of costly sensors deployed at 50 sites in Turkey and Cyprus had never signaled anything extraordinary.
When the first sign of a major disaster came around 3 a.m., it strangely did not come from the machines. All the doors began to shake as if they had been caught in a furious draft, and then the room went dark. Gorgun said he panicked, and when a generator kicked in a moment later and the lights returned, the scene was hardly reassuring.
The recording pens on the seismic sensors, he said, were waving like the baton of a crazed orchestra conductor, making a "cht cht" sound as they went off the charts and hit the machines' metal borders. In scientific terms, the sensors were "oversaturated" with data, because they were not calibrated to record the immense force unleashed by one of the century's worst earthquakes.
No one at the observatory -- and in the rest of the earthquake-prone country -- had anticipated that the sudden slip of two immense tectonic plates beneath the country's most populous and industrious region would fracture or wreck a dozen cities and towns, kill more than 13,500 people and injure another 37,000.
It is not that there were no warnings. For the past 25 years, no one had heeded seismologists' and geologists' repeated predictions that another earthquake would strike along the western tail of the North Anatolian fault line. As Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said in an interview, "it was obvious" for decades that cities in the northwest region faced the danger of an earthquake, "but still they became centers of heavy industry and economy."
The government's failure to respond quickly or effectively to the tragedy has caused frustration and anger among the stricken region's 20 million residents. In Turkey's seven most devastated towns and cities, politicians, municipal employees and residents alike say that in the panicked, chaotic days after the quake struck, virtually all of the nation's core institutions faltered in their attempts to deliver assistance.
The government in Ankara, for example, was virtually cut off from the region for the critical first two days and has had little impact on recovery efforts. Military officials now say they regret that army troops took days to show up and eschewed direct involvement in search and rescue operations. Thousands of police officers were flushed into the region, but they were unable to prevent debilitating traffic jams and stood idle in several cities while residents frantically picked through the rubble.
The nation's principal relief organization, the Red Crescent, was hardly evident in destroyed cities, even as dozens of foreign search and rescue teams converged at Istanbul's bustling airport on Aug. 17 and 18. Bureaucratic disorder delayed some of the international teams for hours, and a few reportedly were asked to pay customs duties on their equipment. But they nonetheless arrived on the disaster scene faster than any home-grown expert aid.
According to the latest government figures, more than 21,390 buildings were ruined, most of them residences housing dozens of people. The government has found itself ill-equipped to deal with the estimated 200,000 to 600,000 people rendered homeless. And it will need international loans to fulfill a national law requiring that each family be given a new residence free of charge.
In the meantime, illness is growing, while tents, medicine and other necessities are in short supply, and corpses are still being pulled from beneath the debris. As it is being cleared, the debris is being dumped into the Sea of Marmara, where it sinks below a large oil slick created when the quake set a refinery on fire.
Nearly two weeks after the quake, details are emerging about the response of top officials. Parliamentary inquiries into their actions are being opened, and some analysts say a new fault-line has appeared in Turkish politics that the statist, inward-looking government can never repair.
`The Rescuers Were Late'
The earthquake that struck Turkey was so immense that its magnitude is in the the top one-tenth of one percent of all recorded earthquakes. Some residents report having heard a series of deep explosions, others a strange howl as thousands of heavy concrete structures swayed back and forth before crashing to the ground.
The geological forces that provoked the quake are well-understood. In 1997, two American scientists and one Turkish scientist jointly wrote in a prestigious journal that due to the collision of two tectonic plates beneath the nation, "the port city of Izmit is most vulnerable to an earthquake" among all the cities at the southern edge of the Marmara Sea. Izmit is located 10 miles northeast of the point where the 45-second quake released its maximum force on Aug. 17, 10 miles beneath the earth's surface, ripping a jagged 40-mile tear in the earth's crust.
At the Golcuk naval base, where 24,000 people live and work, officers awoke to find all of their fire and rescue trucks squashed flat by the collapse of a building that also killed seven firefighters. Four other buildings were also destroyed, including the headquarters, a dormitory for cadets and an officers hotel.
In "war-game" exercises about potential quakes, the navy had devised a plan that called for getting aid from military personnel stationed at Izmit, an idea rendered useless by damage there. More than 325 people died at the base, although one admiral has been quoted saying 2,700 other naval personnel from the town and the base remain missing.
Along the Golcuk and Degirmendere shoreline, much of the land shifted abruptly lower, and some of it disappeared beneath the sea, along with a half-dozen or so buildings and more than 100 trapped, sleeping occupants. Another 600 or so buildings in the center of Golcuk were ruined. But few people outside the city were aware of the depth of its troubles, because it was sandwiched between two other devastated cities -- Izmit and Yalova -- that got the initial attention.
Only when Golcuk's mayor appealed for help on national television late Tuesday, Aug. 17, did Ankara fully realize what had happened. The fact that the TV crew had reached the city by noon without difficulty later became one of the reasons for public anger at the government's slow response. "The rescuers were late, the equipment was late," said Mayor Ismail Baris.
Across Izmit Bay, meanwhile, a spectacular fire the quake started in oil tanks at the Tupras refinery -- Turkey's largest -- threatened to burn out of control and ignite liquid nitrogen, ammonia and other gases stored nearby, causing an explosion that government experts said would devastate scores of nearby structures and cost $5 billion. To safeguard the naval fleet, an admiral ordered the ships to leave port with their crews, depriving the towns of thousands of rescuers.
Military commanders in Ankara decided that afternoon to dispatch army convoys to the zone from Thrace and from Burhaniye, both distant bases. They arrived late Wednesday, and Army Gen. Yalcin Pehlivanoglu, a commander based in Yalova, said their first priority was providing "security and logistics" -- not rescuing trapped civilians.
As a result, some of their men did not actually plunge into rescue work before late Thursday or early Friday -- near the end of the period when most of the trapped victims' had a chance to survive. Major Ibrahim Solak, 58, who commands a unit setting up tents in Karamursel, explained some of the military's reticence: "If we handle every disaster, then we can't do our own job. Our job is to protect the country. This is a profession by itself. Everyone has their own work."
Turkey's president, Suleyman Demirel, has told the Hurriyet newspaper that he was vacationing in Istanbul when the quake struck, and that he awoke when his house started shaking. After checking on his family, he said he groped in the darkness for a small radio or some means of communicating with the government. He said he obtained his first information at 5 a.m. from the radio, and was unable to make a telephone call until 7 a.m.
Rendered Blind and Deaf
Demirel's problem was also the government's in the quake's aftermath. In the first hours of the crisis, it was rendered blind and deaf. Because it never anticipated such a serious quake, the government leadership in Ankara had never made any preparations to ensure that it could communicate with mayors and other leaders of municipalities in a crisis zone -- a huge problem because decision-making in Turkey is heavily centralized.
"The first two days of the tragedy were very difficult for us, because all telecommunications were cut off," Ecevit said. "Transportation had become a major problem" and the government could not dispatch trucks and cranes to the area for three days. When he traveled to the stricken area on Tuesday and Wednesday, Ecevit was unable to reach his office in Ankara. He says that, even now, most of the dead have not been counted.
Not until Wednesday, Aug. 18, did the government send satellite phones to its local governors. But full contact with municipal officials was not made until the cellular phone network was reestablished on Thursday, according to government spokesman Sukru Gurel. In the meantime, Gurel said, "everyone's mind was occupied by that fire" at Tupras, where half the nation's diesel fuel and half of its benzene for gasoline are produced.
Interior Minister Saadettin Tantan said he was able to communicate with the police chiefs or mayors of Istanbul, Sakarya or Izmit for only a few minutes before the cell phones went dead on the day of the quake. "There was a blackout in Ankara," he said. Tantan responded by dispatching a small radio to Sakarya by helicopter, but it didn't work well, and he resorted to ordering police cars in neighboring villages to drive near each other so they could pass messages on their car radios.
"I could not get proper information about the needs, so I had to estimate," Tantan said. "On the first day, we didn't have compressors or steel cutters," and he tried to arrange for mine workers to operate heavy equipment because the regular operators could not be found. He still is anguished when he recalls seeing residents standing outside collapsed buildings because "they had nothing to break the cement."
Some of the government's initial estimates of the scale of the disaster were based on the Kandilli Observatory's erroneous calculation -- due to the miscalibrated sensors -- that the earthquake had a magnitude of 6.7 on the Richter scale instead of the correct figure of 7.4, making it seem roughly 35 times less powerful than it really was. Municipal officials complained to Turkish reporters that the Red Crescent sent far too little aid, in the apparent belief the quake was not so serious.
Under Tantan's coordination, the national police chief and the head of Jendarma, a national paramilitary organization, ordered 19,000 patrolmen and soldiers into the region. The aim, Tantan said, was to provide "security and help . . . [because] the people want to see the state's authority right after this" kind of crisis. But no patrolmen could be seen doing anything other than controlling traffic or guarding streets.
The quake has scarred Turkey's leadership, whose members now promise a multitude of construction reforms and the formation of Turkey's first well-equipped government rescue team.
To Sedat Ergin, the Ankara bureau chief of Hurriyet, "this earthquake created a fault line in the Turkish political system. Everyone saw how inept the whole system is -- the bureaucracy, the state mechanism. What collapsed is the whole system. In the long run, ramifications will be very drastic."
Tourism Minister Erkan Mumcu, who shocked some officials in a parliamentary speech last week by assailing the government's performance, also said there are lasting lessons to be drawn. "We always thought that the only friends of Turks were Turks. We know now that we were manipulated. . . . There are other friends. So we should open our society to the world. This is the demand of the public at large."
"You can," he said, "no longer satisfy them by saying the state will take care of everything."