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Last Updated: Monday, 5 May, 2003, 13:35 GMT 14:35 UK
Eyewitness: Turkey's quake despair

By Peter Biles
BBC correspondent in Bingol, eastern Turkey

Bingol is not a place that can be reached in a hurry. It is situated more than 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) from Istanbul, and three hours by road from the eastern city of Diyarbakir.

Rescue workers remove the last body from the rubble
The final body is pulled from the rubble

Turkish military checkpoints along the route add to the journey time.

The earthquake that struck the Bingol area in the early hours of May 1, measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale, lasted just 17 seconds.

But it took more than 24 hours for many of the foreign news teams to get to the heart of this tragedy - a collapsed school dormitory on the outskirts of Bingol.

Ringed by snow-capped mountains, the fertile countryside and clean air around Bingol is normally a welcome escape from the rather shabby appearance of the town itself.

But now, along a meandering country road, where the pace of life is untouched by the pressures of the 21st Century, the force of nature has again wreaked havoc on modern Turkey.

From the ruins of a four-storey school boarding house, the bodies of 83 children and one teacher were retrieved during a three-day search and rescue operation. Amazingly, another 115 schoolchildren were brought out alive.

Swarm of ants

On arrival, my first impression is of an atmosphere of near chaos. Hundreds of people have converged on the collapsed school building, although the Turkish military have thrown a cordon around the site where the rescue teams are working.

Rescuer with child in Bingol city

During the long night hours, the workers resemble a swarm of ants as they clamber over the mountain of rubble, illuminated by powerful spotlights.

The sparks from their powerful cutting equipment fly into the darkness. The men peer into cavities and from time to time, their activity becomes more frenzied as yet another body, shrouded in sheets, is carried down to the waiting ambulances.

A huge mechanical digger, more suited to major road construction or the demands of open-cast mining, manages to pick delicately at the slabs of concrete, trying to remove layer after layer.

We pitch our tents 100 metres from the site, but the heavy machinery and the portable generators almost deafen us as we broadcast live news of the disaster.

In the fields nearby, distressed relatives are clustered around wood fires, trying to keep warm. Some are already grieving. Others sit quietly in prayer, fearing the worst.

On our second night in Bingol, we secure rooms in the Sarioglu Hotel. From the outside, the building looks untouched by the earthquake, but appearances can be deceptive.

The hotel porter steers us firmly towards the lift. Later, I discover huge cracks in the walls of the stair-well and along the first-floor corridor.

My sleep is fitful as I ponder whether the disturbances I can feel are aftershocks of the earthquake, or simply a heavy-footed occupant in the room above.

Terrifying noise

My colleague, Brian Barron, ventures further afield to some of the outlying villages, and reports seeing dramatic rifts in the ground.

Soldiers sit next to the flattened dormatory
Exhausted soldiers worked night and day on the recovery effort

Some of the fractures are a metre deep, and local people tell him that when the earthquake struck, there was an eerie and terrifying noise that sounded as if the earth was screaming in protest.

The people of this predominantly Kurdish area complain that the response of the Turkish authorities to the disaster was slow. They say that only after three days did the first emergency supplies begin arriving, and there were no ambulances to take the injured to hospital.

On the site of the school dormitory, the work of the recovery teams is nearing completion.

Dr Levent Uyan of the Turkish emergency services describes his sadness when it becomes clear that all hope is gone of finding any more children alive.

As the last bodies are extracted from the crumpled masonry, the Turkish soldiers, dressed in the orange uniforms they have been wearing during this operation, pose for a photograph.

There is no joy, only relief that their job is done. Later, they sit in the shade of their military vehicles, overcome with fatigue. They have worked flat-out for three days and nights.

The school head, Mustafa Gurhan, tells me that these past few days have been the most terrifying of his life. "This will affect all of us," he says. "We lost our students, and this tragedy will stay with us for the rest of our lives."

Now, a place once filled with the sound of young voices and a zest for life, is no more than a pile of rubble, slowly being pulled apart. Turkey is left to count the cost of another earthquake disaster.




SEE ALSO:
In pictures: Turkey earthquake
02 May 03  |  Photo Gallery
Clues to future tremors
06 Mar 03  |  Science/Nature
Deadly history of earthquakes
01 May 03  |  In Depth
Quake survivors describe ordeal
01 May 03  |  Europe
Turkey remembers 1999 earthquake
02 Feb 01  |  Europe


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