Thirteen people were arrested on Wednesday, as part of an investigation over the state of eight buildings that collapsed during an earthquake in the western province of Izmir last year.
The suspects were among the 22 wanted by authorities and a manhunt is underway for others. They are accused of contributing to the death toll and worsening the damage caused by the earthquake as a result of the shoddy construction of the buildings.
A total of 115 people were killed in the earthquake in October 2020. Seven people were arrested and three others were detained but released under judiciary control in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.
New arrests came after a preliminary expert report blamed those involved in the construction of buildings and those not taking measures against the disaster for deaths and injuries. One among the suspects was the owner of a flat in one of the collapsed buildings who refused to approve reconstruction of the building to reinforce it against a possible earthquake.
The report, compiled by experts from Izmir's Dokuz Eylül University (DEU), Istanbul Technical University and the TÜBITAK-Marmara Research Center of the eponymous science council, says the samples taken from wrecked buildings showed that the reason for their collapse was the use of substandard materials and design errors. The prosecutors also formed a four-member expert committee from Istanbul Technical University. Their final report will be released soon. Another report was compiled after geophysical measurements, taken by the TUBITAK-Marmara Research Center, were sent to the prosecutor's office.
A separate investigation is underway regarding 17 public officials named in the report to see whether the authorities issuing building permits were at fault.
Most of the collapsed buildings were built more than two decades ago before the regulations mandating sturdier construction came into force following a deadly earthquake hit northwestern Turkey in 1999.
All fatalities in the earthquake were in buildings in the Bayraklı district, which collapsed either entirely or partially. Rubble that fell between buildings that suffered little damage other than cracked walls had already laid bare the lack of safety in the buildings. Police detained building contractors, owners and engineers of the buildings, including two men who were themselves injured in the aftermath of the earthquake.
A report by a group of researchers from Ankara's Gazi University, who visited the disaster zone two days after the quake, had pointed to “deficiencies” in the collapsed structures and risky ground conditions. Some buildings were constructed in areas that were once orchards and swamps.
According to media reports, in one apartment building where nine people died in the earthquake seven shops on the first floor were merged and a column supporting the ceiling was cut off to expand a supermarket. In another building where 11 people died, the basement floor was modified so much that it was left exposed to floods. In the case of another, a 2005 earthquake of lower magnitude had caused cracks, but they were simply covered up, while another building relocated the entrance after construction.
The report said the earthquake was felt the most in Bayraklı, some 70 kilometers (43 miles) away from the epicenter of the earthquake, due to the “soft” ground, buildings with no resistance to quakes and poor-quality cement used in the construction.
None of the buildings had a proper basement floor that would limit the damage, according to the report. The report also pointed out that the region is known for fault lines that can cause tremors of such magnitude. Experts found that the high level of underground water in Bayraklı led builders to construct only “artificial” foundations for buildings.
Turkey sits on a string of active fault lines and after the 1999 earthquake, it has strived to boost building safety, pursuing an ambitious project to rebuild buildings not resistant to earthquakes and other disasters.
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