Antakya, Turkey — Turkish officials detained or issued arrest warrants for about 130 people believed to be involved in shoddy and illegal construction methods, as rescuers continued to pull several survivors from the rubble on Sunday, six days after a couple of earthquakes thousands of buildings were destroyed.
The death toll from Monday’s earthquakes, which struck southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, stood at 28,191 as of Sunday morning, with more than 80,000 injured.
As despair also fueled anger at the agonizingly slow rescue efforts, the focus was on who was to blame for not better preparing people in the earthquake-prone region, which includes an area of Syria already reeling from years of civil war.
Although there are building codes on paper in Turkey that meet current seismic engineering standards, they are all too rarely enforced, which explains why thousands of buildings have fallen on their sides or collapsed on residents.
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said late Saturday that arrest warrants had been issued for 131 people suspected of being responsible for the building collapse.
Turkey’s justice minister has vowed to punish all those responsible, and prosecutors have begun collecting building samples for evidence of materials used in construction. The aftershocks were powerful, but victims, experts and people across Turkey blame poor construction for multiplying the destruction.
Istanbul airport authorities on Sunday detained two contractors responsible for the demolition of several buildings in Adiyaman, the private news agency DHA and other media reported. The couple was reportedly on their way to Georgia.
One of the arrested contractors, Yavuz Karakus, told reporters on Sunday: “My conscience is clear. I built 44 buildings. Four of them were demolished. I did everything according to the rules,” the DHA agency reports.
Two more people were arrested in Gaziantep province on suspicion of sawing columns to make room for a collapsed building, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.
A day earlier, the Ministry of Justice of Turkey announced the planned establishment of the office “Investigation of crimes related to the earthquake”. The bureau will be directed to identify contractors and others responsible for construction work, gather evidence, instruct experts, including architects, geologists and engineers, and review building permits and occupation permits.
The construction contractor was detained by authorities on Friday at Istanbul airport before he could board a flight out of the country. He was the contractor for a 12-story luxury building in the historic city of Antakya, Hatay province, which collapsed and killed countless people.
The arrests can help direct public anger at builders and contractors, drawing attention away from local and state officials who have allowed apparently shoddy construction. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, already burdened by an economic downturn and high inflation, faces parliamentary and presidential elections in May.
Those who survived, many of whom lost loved ones, took their frustration and anger out on the authorities as well. Rescuers were stunned by the widespread destruction of roads and airports, making the race against time even more difficult.
Earlier this week, Erdogan acknowledged that the initial response was hampered by extensive damage. He said the worst-hit area was 500 kilometers (310 miles) in diameter and home to 13.5 million people in Turkey. During a tour of quake-hit towns on Saturday, Erdogan said a disaster of this magnitude was rare and again called it the “disaster of the century.”
Rescue workers, including crews from other countries, continued to sort through the debris in hope search for additional survivors who else can beat ever increasing odds. Thermal imaging cameras scanned piles of concrete and metal, and rescuers demanded silence to hear the voices of those trapped.
Two sisters were pulled from the rubble Sunday in the city of Adiaman, 153 hours after the earthquake, according to HaberTurk TV, which also broadcast live the rescue of a 6-year-old boy from the rubble of his home in Adiaman. The child was wrapped in a space blanket and placed in an ambulance. The exhausted rescuer removed his surgical mask and took a deep breath as a group of women could be heard crying with joy.
Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca released a video of the rescued young girl in a dark blue jumper. “Good news at hour 150. Recently rescued by crews. There’s always hope!” he wrote on Twitter.
Rescue workers pulled the man to Antakya several hours after hearing voices from under the rubble. Workers said the man, who was in his 20s and 30s, was one of nine still in the building. But when asked if he knew any other survivors, he said he hadn’t heard voices in three days.
The man waved weakly as he was passed hand in hand on a stretcher, while the workers applauded and chanted, “God is great!”
A team of German and Turkish rescuers rescued an 88-year-old woman alive from the rubble in Kirikhan, the German news agency dpa reported. The efforts of a team of Italian and Turkish rescuers also paid off when they pulled a 35-year-old man from the wreckage in Antakya. Mustafa Sarygul looked unharmed when he was taken on a stretcher to an ambulance, reports the private NTV channel.
A child was also freed overnight in the city of Nizip in Gaziantep, the state-run Anadolu Agency said, while a 32-year-old woman was rescued from the ruins of an eight-story building in Antakya. The woman, a teacher named Meltem, asked for tea as soon as she left, NTV reports.
In Kahramanmaras, near the epicenter of the first 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck early Monday morning, efforts are underway to find a survivor found by search dogs under a seven-story building now covered in rubble, NTV reports.
However, those found alive remained a rare exception.
On Saturday, a large improvised cemetery was being built on the outskirts of Antakya. Backhoes and bulldozers dug holes in the field as trucks and ambulances laden with black body bags kept arriving. Hundreds of graves, spaced no more than 3 feet apart, were marked with simple wooden boards driven vertically into the ground.
The picture is less clear with the dire situation across the border in Syria.
United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths, visiting the Turkish-Syrian border on Sunday, said in a statement that Syrians had been left “to look for international aid that has not arrived”.
“Until now, we have failed people in northwestern Syria. They rightly feel left out,” he said, adding: “It is my duty and our duty to correct this failure as soon as possible.”
The first UN convoy to reach northwestern Syria from Turkey was on Thursday, three days after the earthquake.
Until then, the only cargo going through the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkey-Syria border was a steady stream of bodies from the earthquake victims — Syrian refugees who fled the war in their country and settled in Turkey, but died on Monday in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake. ball. shaking – returning home for a funeral.
Political disputes are also delaying aid convoys from areas of northeastern Syria controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish groups to those controlled by the Syrian government and Turkish-backed rebels who have fought the Syrian Democratic Forces for years under led by the Kurds.
The death toll in the rebel-held northwest region of Syria has reached 2,166, according to the White Helmets. The total death toll in Syria on Saturday was 3,553, although the 1,387 deaths reported in government-held parts of the country were not updated for several days.