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Turkey/Greece: Engineers Check Buildings In Quakes' Aftermath

By Gokalp Bayramli and Alexis Papasotiriou

The earthquakes that devastated Turkey last month and shook Greece last week killed thousands of people and reduced hundreds of buildings to rubble. As the two countries rebuild, they are investigating potential violations of building codes, which may have made some apartment complexes unsafe. RFE/RL correspondents Gokalp Bayramli in Istanbul and Alexis Papasotiriou in Athens report.

Athens/Istanbul, 17 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Avcilar quarter of Istanbul, the city's western-most area, is a scene of rubble. Scores of buildings collapsed here during Turkey's recent powerful earthquake. Tents are still set up among the ruins, and even those people whose houses were not visibly damaged prefer to remain outside. Few are confident that their apartment buildings will not suddenly collapse on top of them.

But some people are venturing into the damaged buildings. Lawyers and engineers are inspecting structures throughout the city to determine what caused so many to collapse, and who is responsible.

Raif Dedeoglu is a lawyer in the Avcilar district. He says an Istanbul legal chamber is evaluating buildings to gather evidence for citizens in their claim for compensation.

"In Avcilar the situation is this: The geological studies have not brought any results yet. Samples have been taken and the examination is going on at the technical university. From the buildings. we take concrete and metal samples, which are then examined. But when we walk around as a group of lawyers, engineers and architects, the technical experts state that the collapsed buildings in Avcilar are the ones with lots of structural mistakes."

Dedeoglu says that in Turkey, most of the blame for the extent of the earthquake damage is being placed on state and local governments. He says there are two main areas of responsibility. The state is required to examine the geological situation of any potential building site. If its studies were not conducted properly, the state has a degree of responsibility in any subsequent earthquake damage.

But, Dedeoglu adds, the cities can also share responsibility for damages if they failed to properly supervise construction. The engineers who actually built the buildings have a smaller degree of responsibility.

In Greece, in contrast, the engineers who built shoddy buildings are being blamed for damages. Prosecutors in Athens have pledged to press charges against any engineers who constructed buildings without taking measures to make them earthquake-proof.

The earthquake in Greece was less severe than that in Turkey, and far fewer buildings collapsed. Giorgos Panas, an experienced engineer based in Athens, says that most of the buildings that did collapse did not adhere to the building codes. Some engineers, he said, built buildings almost overnight and then applied for permits after the buildings were already finished.

Pavlos Kalligas, a respected architect in Athens, said that illegal building practices were at the root of the problem. But he added that there were also problems with the construction materials used. Kalligas said Greece should introduce quality controls on construction materials. As things now stand, a contractor has no way of knowing how good the quality is of the cement or steel he purchases.

Panayis Koutoufas of Greece's Urban Planning Ministry says that the country's building regulations are very strict. He said buildings that meet the guidelines should withstand earthquakes. Buildings built after 1995 have to meet even more stringent specifications that were expressly designed to make them more earthquake-resistant.

The Planning Ministry has announced new steps to make Greek buildings safe. Koutoufas said the ministry plans to introduce compulsory studies of the ground for all new buildings. It also plans to require building owners to carry compulsory insurance against earthquakes, at least in certain regions. This would give insurance companies an incentive to make sure that building standards are followed, since they obviously would seek to avoid paying huge sums of money to the owner if a building collapsed.

Dedeoglu, the Turkish lawyer, says he hopes the officials who were negligent will be prosecuted.

"If this is a state of law, then people who are in responsible positions have to be punished. If the courts cannot do this quickly and, consequently, cannot charge these people, then I believe that nothing much will change in the future."

For the time being, the process of inspecting buildings and gathering evidence continues. It will be months before all the evidence is analyzed, and it will take many more months for Turkey and Greece to rebuild.