Turkey, 1999 Marmara earthquake

21 years of the Great Marmara Earthquake that struck northwestern Turkey

On August 17, 1999, at 3:02 a.m., the earth shook for 45 seconds, devastating the most populated region of Turkey.

This August 17, many Turks remember with sadness and pain the 21st anniversary of the Great Marmara Earthquake that struck northwest Turkey in 1999 with an intensity of 7.4 degrees on the Richter scale, causing 17,000 deaths, 45,000 injuries and leaving 200,000 homeless.

More than two decades later, that tragedy serves to recall the danger posed by earthquakes in this country, but also how in many cases the authorities do not take the necessary measures to prevent victims each time an earthquake is unleashed, in which it is one of the most seismically active countries in the world.

It was a very hot summer, and it was at 3:02 in the morning, when most of the people were trying to sleep despite the heat, when the earthquake shook the earth for 45 seconds with its epicentre in Gölcük – a town in the province from Kocaeli, south of Istanbul – causing thousands of buildings to collapse. Yalova, another neighbouring province on the banks of the Marmara, and the Avcılar district in Istanbul itself were also severely affected.

“It was like doomsday,” recalled Hülya Döleker, a 59-year-old woman who lost a daughter and a son in the earthquake. “They rescued me (from the rubble) six hours later. My children would be about 30 years old today if they lived,” he told the media while attending a tribute ceremony organised in Gölcük. Döleker’s son was found buried 10 days after the earthquake. “May we not suffer similar pain again,” he said.

There are still lessons to be learned from that earthquake

Although the disaster unleashed a great wave of solidarity inside and outside Turkey, the rescue tasks in a country that had its most populated region – and its main economic and industrial hub- devastated by the earthquake, were not easy. There were many mistakes and chaos, hospitals could barely care for the injured, and rescue teams worked amid great difficulties.

Ilker Özkap, a man who is now 45 years old, was another of those rescued alive after the earthquake, but his mother’s lifeless body was not recovered from the rubble of his house until 40 days later. “There was a lot of shortages then. The response was late, and the debris was removed late,” he said. In total, it is estimated that more than 76,000 buildings were destroyed by the earthquake, and many more seriously damaged.

Years later, although much progress has been made in both earthquake legislation and disaster coordination itself – with the creation for example of the Agency for Disaster and Emergency Management (AFAD) – there are still many lessons to be learned in Turkey of the Great Marmara Earthquake; the most important: that it is not the earthquakes, but the unsafe buildings, what causes deaths.