The Big One

The outside limit of survival in a collapsed building, rescue experts say, is about a week, although as a rule the great majority of victims succumb within 72 hours to dehydration, shock or compression of the internal organs. That is also the point beyond which the will to live becomes problematic for people trapped in the stifling dark, often with loved ones dead and dying around them. But as late as noon on Thursday, 57 hours after a devastating earthquake flattened whole blocks of the Turkish city of Izmit, there was still reason for hope when Coleen and Vasco, Swiss rescue dogs trained to sniff out avalanche survivors, caught the scent of life in a heap of rubble

that had been a 14-story apartment building. The front-loader that had been eating away at the ruins fell silent and the crowd began the primitive, painstaking work of moving debris by hand. From a hole near the bottom of the mound, a child's voice was heard, calling for water. Out of the rubble came a boy of 7 or 8, followed minutes later by his 3-year-old sister. Old men in skullcaps covered their faces with grimy handkerchiefs, hiding their tears. They wept, knowing that crews would now be bringing out survivors by ones and twos, and corpses by the thousands.

Bodies piled up in makeshift morgues and on the ice of Izmit's new municipal hockey rink, whose equipment fought a losing battle against decay in the 100-degree heat outside. The living camped out in parks without electricity or running water; 1.5 million people were at least temporarily homeless. Turkish rescue efforts collapsed into chaos and disappeared in hundred-kilometer traffic jams; communication was so chaotic that Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, touring the disaster area on the first day, used a televised press briefing to convey instructions to officials back in Ankara. The United States dispatched a crack search-and-rescue team, plus three Navy hospital ships and planeloads of supplies. More than 30 other countries pitched in, including Turkey's historic enemy, Greece, which sent medical and firefighting teams. "We have been taught to hate Turks for years," said one of Greece's leading newspapers, "but their unbelievable pain gives us no joy." Yet the number of lives saved was minuscule in comparison with the death toll, which seemed likely to reach at least 45,000, making this one of the half-dozen deadliest quakes of the century.

Geologically, what happened last week was well understood, a strike-slip movement along the North Anatolian Fault, which runs right through the densely populated industrial heart of northern Turkey. This marks the boundary of two tectonic plates, the vast Eurasian one to the north and the small Turkish one on which most of Asia Minor rides. Squeezed by the northward-trending Arabian Plate, the Turkish Plate is slowly moving west--sticking along the way and then, as it did last week, cataclysmically jerking free with the energy of a hundred megatons of TNT. The Izmit quake, in which the ground moved nearly 10 feet laterally in places, measured 7.4 on the Richter scale, according to almost-final calculations by the U.S. Geological Survey; by comparison, the quake that struck the Los Angeles area in 1994, killing 61, was a 6.8.

But there was another force at work, a fault line under Turkey's facade of modernization. These were not huts or shanties, but apartment houses for the workers in Turkey's automotive and petrochemicals industries, most of them built in recent decades under modern, earthquake-resistant standards. "The new [building] codes they're using over there are very similar to what we are using in California," says Susan Tubbesing, director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in Oakland, Calif. The difference from California, many authorities suspect, is that some Turkish contractors apparently prefer to erect substandard buildings, and there's no inspection process to stop them. It is a simple matter to add more sand and less cement to a batch of concrete, or to use a thinner grade of steel-reinforcing bar, without anyone's noticing the difference, at least until a 7.4 earthquake comes along. murderers! the national daily Hurriyet thundered in a front-page headline, just a day after the disaster. "All those seen responsible will be brought before justice," Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk proclaimed righteously, although he was quick to add that responsibility had to be spread among "several factors, including mistakes in urban planning, construction without license..." Crooked contractors might well conclude that they don't have much to fear from a prosecutor who begins his brief by citing "mistakes in urban planning."

At 3:01 a.m. last Tuesday the mistakes came tumbling down on their sleeping occupants. By Thursday morning, the Fairfax, Va., Urban Search and Rescue Team, one of two such outfits under contract to the State Department (the other is from Dade County, Fla.), had deployed in a parking lot in Izmit and booted up their computers. In all, they numbered 70 dog-handlers, firefighters, translators, trauma doctors, civil engineers and other esoteric specialists, and they wielded 56,000 pounds of equipment, including rebar cutters, fiber-optic search cameras and listening devices that can detect a human heartbeat through 20 feet of rubble.

The search teams constitute a kind of worldwide volunteer fire department, prepared to drop everything at a moment's notice and fly to where they're needed. Garrett Dyer, a Fairfax fire marshal, is a veteran of the bombing at Oklahoma City and at the American Embassy in Nairobi last year. His dog, Kudo, was the first to make a "hit" on Thursday, locating a 40-year-old woman still alive in the rubble. Later, a listening device picked up sounds coming from the ruins of an apartment block whose floors had collapsed into a V rather than pancaked flat. Evan Lewis, a firefighter from Leesburg, Va., crawled through the wreckage to find an 8-year-old boy alive in his bed, protected by the safety rail meant to keep him from rolling onto the floor while he slept. Bringing the boy out, Lewis saw another figure on the bed as well--his little sister, crushed to death by a chunk of concrete.

Those were two of only four rescues the Fairfax team made that day, though, and as the hours and days went on, the rubble increasingly held only corpses. At $1 million per deployment, that's an expensive way to save lives--especially when weighed against the need for things like medicine to treat the cholera epidemic doctors suspect may be in the offing. But, says Lewis, "until you've been part of a team that's saved someone's life, and seen the look on their face when they come out of the hole, you can't understand. It's something you can't put a price tag on."

Nor can you put a price tag on the value of real-life experience. "We need to look at what happened in Turkey," says Lucy Jones, scientist-in-charge of the USGS office for southern California, "because their strike-slip fault looks a lot like our San Andreas. What happened there is what we can expect to happen in southern California." Most people expect California's buildings to stand up better than Izmit's, although Jones considers human nature a constant in the equation. "Are you sure the contractor who built your home has not fooled an inspector?" she asks ominously. Americans, who well know the devastation that the Earth can wreak on the proudest works of humankind, can only hope that everyone learned a lesson from the awful tragedy unfolding half a world away.