Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Friday, 2 May 2003 17:46 UK

Why Bingol's school collapsed

Lucy Jones
BBC News Online

The school in the Turkish town of Bingol where dozens of children are still trapped suffered a "pancake collapse".

The building's columns shifted under the sideward force of the earthquake causing the floors to fall on top of each other - resembling a plate of pancakes.

In this type of collapse - similar to that of the World Trade Centre - people do not have enough time to get out of the building.

"Turkey has a pretty good earthquake design code. Had such a design code been followed the school would not have collapsed," said Alan Stewart of the British engineering firm Babtie.

"From the pictures I've seen on television, the building appears to be reinforcement-short," he added.

While companies involved in larger construction projects in Turkey's cities follow building codes, elsewhere regulations are often ignored.

Bingol's school is typical of provincial buildings in Turkey - heavy concrete slabs have been placed on top of concrete columns, then the structure filled in with brickwork.

With little reinforcement, buildings are prone to collapse when even very shallow earthquakes occur.

Buildings however can be made to withstand tremors.

"You need strong columns and weak beams. You are designing where you want the building to fail," says Dr Paul Greening, a structural engineering expert at University College London.

If a building has strong columns, in the event of an earthquake or terrorist attack, people will be given enough time to escape before the floors fall on top of each other.

"It's not rocket science," he said, adding that the sideways load exerted by an earthquake is often less onerous than the vertical load exerted by gravity.

This building was built out of sand
Serhat Keteralp

Quality of materials is also important but often construction companies skimp on safety to save money.

Dr Greening visited Izmit in Turkey after tremors led to the death of more than 17,000 people in 1999.

"Reinforcement bars were missing... metal cans had been placed inside columns to save on concrete," he said.

The collapse of Bingol's school has again focused attention on poor construction methods in Turkey.

Public anger

Relatives' grief is turning to fury in some cases at what they see as an example of corruption.

"This building was built out of sand," said one relative Serhat Keteralp.

"I have my 13-year-old son buried under this death trap. These thieves who built this school should be hung," he added.

Earthquake building codes were already in place when the four-storey school - a government building - was put up in 1999.

Bingol, Turkey
Relatives are still waiting for news of their children

The primary and middle boarding school was for the children of farmers from surrounding villages that have no schools and poor transportation services.

Nihat Ozdemir head of the Turkish Contractors' Union said contractors were not being inspected carefully.

"There are accusations of bribery and that kind of malpractice. People get a statement to say a building has been safely built when in fact it is not true," said Dr Russ Evans.

Lives saved

At least 67 children are still unaccounted for in Bingol.

Rescuer Mehmet Hatunogl said workers were building a tunnel from the basement of the building up to what used to be the third floor in hopes of reaching two children believed to be stuck there.

So far, 90 children have been pulled out alive from the rubble.

Steel lockers used by the children in the dormitory have helped save many lives.

The lockers - and metal bunk beds - were strong enough to hold when the ceiling fell, creating life-saving "voids" in the wreckage.

Recep Gungor, said he woke up with his bunk bed shaking and fell off.

"Then the bed fell on me. I said "it is an earthquake", but I don't remember how I was rescued," he said.

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