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Turkey detains building contractors as the quake death toll rises to more than 33,000

Emergency teams search for people in the rubble of a destroyed building in Adana, southern Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. For Syrians and Ukrainians fleeing the violence back home, the earthquake that struck in Turkey and Syria is but the latest tragedy.
Hussein Malla
/
AP
Emergency teams search for people in the rubble of a destroyed building in Adana, southern Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. For Syrians and Ukrainians fleeing the violence back home, the earthquake that struck in Turkey and Syria is but the latest tragedy.

Updated February 12, 2023 at 10:27 AM ET

ANTAKYA, Turkey — Turkish justice officials targeted more than 130 people allegedly involved in shoddy and illegal construction methods as rescuers extricated more survivors, including a pregnant woman and two small children, six days after a pair of earthquakes collapsed thousands of buildings.

The death toll from the 7.8 magnitude and 7.5 magnitude quakes that hit southeastern Turkey and northern Syria nine hours apart on Feb. 6 rose to 33,179 on Sunday and was certain to keep increasing as search teams locate more bodies in the rubble.

As despair bred rage at the agonizingly slow rescue efforts, the focus turned to assigning blame for the disaster in an earthquake-prone region that includes an area of Syria already suffering from years of civil war.

Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said Sunday that some 131 people were under investigation for their alleged responsibility in the construction of buildings that failed to withstand the quakes. While the quakes were powerful, victims, experts and people across Turkey are blaming faulty construction for multiplying the devastation.

Turkey's construction codes meet current earthquake-engineering standards, at least on paper, but they are too rarely enforced, explaining why thousands of buildings toppled over or pancaked down onto the people inside.

Among those facing scrutiny were two more people who were arrested in Gaziantep province on suspicion of having cut down columns to make extra room in a building that collapsed in the quakes, the state-run Anadolu Agency said.

The justice ministry said three people in all were under arrest pending trial, seven were detained and another seven were barred from leaving Turkey.

Authorities at Istanbul Airport on Sunday detained two contractors held responsible for the destruction of several buildings in Adiyaman, the private DHA news agency and other media reported. The pair were reportedly on their way to Georgia.

One of the detained contractors, Yavuz Karakus, told reporters: "My conscience is clear. I built 44 buildings. Four of them were demolished. I did everything according to the rules," DHA quoted him as saying.

Rescuers, including crews from other countries, continued to probe the rubble in hope of finding additional survivors who could yet beat the increasingly long odds. Thermal cameras were used to probe the piles of concrete and metal, while rescuers demanded silence so that they could hear the voices of the trapped.

A pregnant woman was rescued Sunday in the hard-hit Turkish province of Hatay, 157 hours after the first quake, state-broadcaster TRT said.

HaberTurk television broadcast the live rescue of a 6-year-old boy removed from the debris of his home in Adiyaman. The child was wrapped in a space blanket and put into an ambulance. An exhausted rescuer removed his surgical mask and took deep breaths as a group of women could be heard crying in joy.

Turkey's health minister, Fahrettin Koca, posted a video of a young girl in a navy blue jumper who was rescued. "Good news at the 150th hour. Rescued a little while ago by crews. There is always hope!" he tweeted.

Rescue workers pulled out a man in Antakya, hours after hearing voices from beneath the rubble. Workers said the man, who appeared to be in his late 20s or 30s, was one of nine still trapped in the building. But when asked whether he knew of any other survivors, he said he hadn't heard any voices for three days.

The man weakly waved his hand as he was passed hand to hand on a stretcher as workers applauded and chanted, "God is great!"

A team of German and Turkish relief workers rescued an 88-year-old woman alive from rubble in Kirikhan, German news agency dpa reported. The efforts of a team of Italian and Turkish rescuers also paid off when they removed a 35-year-old man from the wreckage in the hard-hit city of Antakya. He appeared to be unscathed as he was transported on a stretcher to an ambulance, private NTV television reported.

Overnight, a child was also freed in the town of Nizip, in Gaziantep, state-run Anadolu Agency reported, while a 32-year woman, was rescued from the ruins of a eight-story building in the city of Antakya. The woman asked for tea as soon as she emerged, according to NTV.

In Kahramanmaras, near the epicenter of the first quake, efforts were underway to reach a survivor detected by sniffer dogs beneath a now-pancaked seven-story building, NTV reported.

Those found alive, however, remained the rare exception.

A large makeshift graveyard was under construction in Antakya's outskirts on Saturday. Backhoes and bulldozers dug pits in the field as trucks and ambulances loaded with black body bags arrived continuously. The hundreds of graves, spaced no more than 3 feet (a meter) apart, were marked with simple wooden planks set vertically in the ground.

Hatay's airport, where the runway was damaged, reopened on Sunday, the transportation ministry announced. That should help somewhat getting help into the region.

The picture of the plight across the border in Syria was less clear

United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths, visiting the Turkish-Syrian border Sunday, said in a statement that Syrians have been left "looking for international help that hasn't arrived."

"We have so far failed the people in northwest Syria. They rightly feel abandoned," he said, adding, "My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can."

The first U.N convoy to reach northwest Syria from Turkey was on Thursday, three days after the earthquake.

Before that, it was only a steady stream of bodies of earthquake victims coming across the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkey-Syria border: Syrian refugees who had fled the war in their country and settled in Turkey but perished in the disaster coming home for burial.

Political disputes have also held up aid convoys sent from areas of northeast Syria controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish groups to those controlled by the Syrian government and by Turkish-backed rebels who have fought with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces over the years.

The earthquake death toll in Syria's northwestern rebel-held region has reached 2,166, according to the rescue worker group the White Helmets. The overall death toll in Syria stood at 3,553 on Saturday, though the 1,387 deaths reported for government-held parts of the country hadn't been updated in days. Turkey's death toll was updated to 29,605 Sunday afternoon.

Turkey's Justice Ministry on Saturday announced the planned establishment of Earthquake Crimes Investigation bureaus. The bureaus would aim to identify contractors and others responsible for building works, gather evidence, instruct experts including architects, geologists and engineers, and check building permits and occupation permits.

A building contractor was detained by authorities on Friday at Istanbul airport before he could board a flight out of the country. He built a luxury 12-story building called Ronesans Rezidans in the historic city of Antakya, in Hatay province. When it went down, it left an untold number of dead. He was formally arrested Saturday.

In leaked testimony published by Anadolu, the man said the building followed regulations and he did not know why the building didn't withstand the quakes. His lawyer suggested the public was looking for a scapegoat.

The detentions could help direct public anger toward builders and contractors, deflecting attention away from local and state officials who allowed the apparently sub-standard constructions to go ahead. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, already burdened by an economic downturn and high inflation, faces parliamentary and presidential elections in May.

Survivors, many of whom lost loved ones, have turned their frustration and anger also at authorities. Rescue crews have been overwhelmed by the widespread damage which has impacted roads and airports, making it even more difficult to race against the clock.

Erdogan acknowledged earlier in the week that the initial response has been hampered by the extensive damage. He said the worst-affected area was 500 kilometers (310 miles) in diameter and was home to 13.5 million people in Turkey. During a tour of quake-damaged cities Saturday, Erdogan said a disaster of this scope was rare, referring to it as the "disaster of the century" in multiple speeches.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press