Teen rescued from Turkey quake rubble, as government eyes lax building construction

A teen was pulled from the Turkish quake rubble early Friday morning. Meanwhile, concerns are rising over subpar building construction, which contributed to the quake's toll and is ongoing.

Ahmet Izgi/Anadolu Agency/Reuters
Ferhat Tokay, a 13-year old earthquake survivor, rests at a hospital after being rescued in the eastern Turkish city of Van on Oct. 28.

Rescue workers on Friday pulled a teenage boy alive from rubble five days after an 7.2-magnitude earthquake rocked eastern Turkey.

As cold weather and snow moved into the quake's epicenter at the town of Ercis, Ferhat Tokay, 13, became the latest of 187 people to be freed from rubble and debris. He was trapped for 108 hours underneath the building that collapsed on the ground-floor shoe shop where he worked. He survived by making more room for himself in the rubble.

So far, the quake has claimed the lives of 570 people and injured 2,500.

"When the earthquake happened, he made a small space, and made a pillow with shoes," Sahin Tokay, the uncle of the rescued boy, told the Monitor by telephone from Ercis. "The first day he was hungry; the rest of those days he didn't feel anything."

The young man drank rainwater to survive, and created a gap in the rubble to tell night from day.

As more international aid arrives in the remote area populated by ethnic Kurds, rescue teams have largely shifted from searching for survivors to recovering the dead.

By the early hours of Friday morning, the family had lost hope, and "cried and screamed," recalled Mr. Tokay, the uncle. Rescue workers were giving up, but he said he had a feeling that his nephew was still alive – and asked for one more chance to look.

"The minute [Ferhat] saw me, he gave a big smile to me," says the uncle. The family has mixed emotions about their ordeal, which is shared by so many in eastern Turkey as winter sets in.

"We are feeling half happy and half sad, because my local family is dead, they are under buildings and underground, we don't know if they are alive or dead," says Tokay. "So we are only a little bit happy."

Turkish leaders have acknowledged a slow response and "mistakes" made in handling the aftermath of the temblor – including their initial rejection of offers from abroad of support and emergency gear.

Aid trucks have been raided by needy victims on their way to distribution points; life-saving tents have found their way onto a black market for extortionate prices.

Turkey is criss-crossed with faultlines, and poor building practices and lax enforcement of quality codes often result in casualties. Witnesses to the aftermath of the latest quake, which flattened some villages and left thousands homeless, noted that supposedly "concrete" building materials were reduced to dust. Some 2,000 buildings are reported to have been destroyed, and an additional 3,700 have been declared too dangerous to inhabit.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised on Wednesday that Turkey would tear down poorly made and dangerous buildings, even if it affected the popularity of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

"Instead of experiencing the same incidents repeatedly, it is more auspicious to lose your governing power," Mr. Erdogan said.

But thousands of building permits were issued during the second half of 2010, before new quality control legislation came into effect, reports Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman, meaning that subpar construction may still continue for awhile unless the government intervenes.

The new legislation was delayed for enforcement until 2011, Today's Zaman reports, citing industry experts who said government determination "is not enough because homeowners and building contractors try to cut costs by economizing on the quality of materials and avoiding inspections on building standards whenever possible."

Because many people, even those without previous plans to build, put in applications ahead of the new legislation in order to avoid having to meet the newer, higher standards, in the last six months of 2010, the number of building permits approved "was equivalent to the average for three to four years [combined]," according to the newspaper.

Turkey originally rejected outside help for earthquake victims, but by the end of the week more than a dozen nations were allowed to contribute. Among them was neighboring Iran, which shares the earthquake zone along Turkey's eastern border.

Iranian media reported that the Iranian Red Crescent had set up a first camp "only hours" after the earthquake hit, with supplies sent from the northwestern Iranian city of Khoy. Iranian officials said 465 tents were being set up this week in a second camp.

Israel also sent aid to its former ally. Relations have been strained since Israel's incursion into Gaza in late 2008, but particularly since the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, when Israeli commandos seized control of a Turkish aid ship trying to break the blockade on Gaza, killing eight Turkish activists and a dual US-Turkish citizen.

Turkey says the countries' ties will not be mended until Israel apologizes, which the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu so far refuses to do.

"We have no prejudice against any country, but just because Israel is helping us does not mean that we will give up our principled decision against the country," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

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