Photograph by Reza
Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine
The night was too sultry for sleep. So at 3 a.m. on August 17, 1999, restless townspeople in Gölcük, Turkey, strolled in the park. They walked along the waterfront on the Gulf of İzmit, easternmost arm of the Sea of Marmara, and perhaps some talked of the many jumping fish spotted on the coast in recent days—or of the mysterious appearance of dead crabs and jellyfish. But İsmet Koyun and six other members of a local soccer team reminisce about past games as they sat on benches beneath a willow tree.
"Let's go home," İsmet recalls saying. "I've got to work today." As he stood, an explosion boomed over the gulf. "The earth came alive with shaking," he says. "The sky turned red, a sword of light flew out of the sea, and a wave as tall as a ship thundered toward us."
A great crack opened along the waterfront, and "like a drunk man trying to run," İsmet leaped over it and raced inland. Three of his friends climbed trees. A blinding storm of dust from collapsed buildings rose over the town and swept down toward the shore.
When the dust settled, İsmet found himself knee-deep in water. Looking back, he saw that a vast section of the former waterfront, including the park, had slumped into the gulf, sinking 30 feet (9 meters) or more. The lower floors of two seven-story buildings had crumbled and plunged into the gulf, killing 50 men who had been gambling in an ground-floor café.
Like everyone I met along the sea of Marmara in the days after the earthquake, İsmet Koyun still seemed stunned as he sat on his bicycle and looked out at the submerged trees and lampposts now well offshore. "Many bodies remain out there under the water," he said. "Also many vehicles, including a police car with two policemen inside."
Gölcük lies near the epicenter of one of the most punishing earthquakes of the past century. The magnitude 7.4 catastrophe created headlines worldwide. Tens of thousands dead. Some 250,000 homeless. And billions of dollars' worth of damage to Turkey's industrial heartland.
Istanbul, a city of more than seven million people about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of the epicenter, was violently shaken. Although the heart of the megalopolis remained intact, the quake destroyed several dozen buildings in Avcilar, a neighborhood built in recent decades on the western edge of the city. And thousands of people, too frightened after the quake to sleep indoors, camped in open spaces with tents thrown together from sheets, towels, and blankets.
"This tragedy has directly touched almost everyone in the country," said my Turkish friend Aydin Kudu. "Hundreds of thousands of people from all over Turkey had moved here for jobs. We've all lost someone."
The earthquake began just east of Gölcük, about ten miles (16 kilometers) underground along a buried rip in the Earth's crust known as the North Anatolian Fault. Extending from eastern Turkey to Greece, the thousand-mile-long (1,609-kilometer-long) rip is very similar to California's infamous San Andreas Fault. Like its American counterpart, the Anatolian Fault is actually a network of smaller fault segments that divide two tectonic plantes—in this case Eurasia and the much smaller Anatolian block, which carries most of Turkey on its back.
The edges of the two plates are locked together, but geologic forces are driving the Anatolia plate westward toward Greece at the rate of 8 or 9 feet (2.4 or 2.7 meters) a century, building pressure along the juncture. When enough pressure builds, one or more fault segments unlock in a violent jerk. If a small segment breaks, the ensuing earthquake might be magnitude 6 or less. But when the segment beneath Gölcük snapped, the energy released triggered ruptures along three adjacent segments—to both the east and the west—creating a much larger event.
Three days after the earthquake struck, I drove with Aydin toward the epicenter, reading the morning headlines. The official death count had reached 6,800. Three provincial governors—unable to coordinate initial relief efforts—had been replaced. Rescue workers, including at least 2,000 foreigners, were giving up hope of finding anyone else alive in the wreckage. In the city of Adapazari 963 people had been buried in a mass grave. The Turkish government was ordering 10,000 more body bags. The destruction of the infrastructure of one of the most industrialized regions of the country was "complete," said the general secretary of the Foreign Investors Association.
When we reached the edge of İzmit, the largest city hit by the earthquake, the smell of petroleum pervaded the air. Black smoke still billowed up from the Tüpras refinery complex, Turkey's largest. People walked the highways with suitcases. Relief workers carried corpses to an ice rink that had been converted into a morgue.
We came to an immense pile of broken concrete—the remains of a six-story apartment building. Carpeting, bedspreads, and splinters of furniture protruded from the rubble. A rescue team working with a large backhoe picked away at the debris pile.
Clustered around the collapsed building were scores of people, their eyes red, their faces weary. Many clutched photo albums or stared at pictures of loved ones, hoping against all odds that they might still be breathing beneath the concrete.
A shout arose from the rescue team—a body. The workers carefully extracted the corpse of a woman; people crowded around. No one recognized her.
"It's hard," said a bystander. "The faces are so swollen and black."
I felt intrusive and helpless. "What can I say to these people?" I asked Aydin. " Geçmiş olsun ," he replied. "May it be over."
An older man with bandaged head and arms arrived, and people rushed to greet him. He was Mustafa Çifttepe, one of seven people who had survived the collapse of the building. His wife and son had not. He was just back from the hospital.
"He was trapped for 17 hours," said his son-in-law, Ersin Güzey, who lives in New York City. As soon as they heard of the catastrophe, Ersin and his wife had caught the first flight available to Istanbul.
Ersin translated his father-in-law's story: "I was in bed with my wife on the second floor when the shaking began. My wife said 'Get up! Get up!' Then a large chest landed on her. A wall fell toward me, stopping two inches (five centimeters) from my nose. I was afraid to move, afraid that if I did, everything would collapse and crush me. I just prayed and called for my son."
His son, a neighbor named Vedat Aktaş told me, was found in the next room, his pants pulled halfway up his legs.
Vedat cursed the contractor who built the apartment. "This building had only half the steel it should have had," he said. "And this is supposed to be concrete," he said, dropping a chunk and watching with disgust as it shattered into bits. "It's more like sand."
Vedat's anger echoed across Turkey as the death toll mounted. The dire need for housing during recent rapid urbanization had encouraged fast, shoddy construction in thousands of new buildings. Many contractors, either through corruption or negligence, ignored building codes designed for earthquake resistance. It was those newer buildings that took the greatest hit.
As we left, I turned to the bandaged old man: "Geçmiş olsun." He nodded, his eyes filling with tears.
We headed deeper into the destruction zone, giving a ride to a man bound for Gölcük. His niece and her husband had died there, and he wanted to search for other missing relatives. The sun blazed. The air sweltered. And everywhere I looked I saw the heaped remains of countless shattered stores, mosques, and apartments. Most of the buildings still standing teetered on the brink of collapse. Traffic inched past bulldozers working to clear debris. Thousands of sweating, overworked rescue workers attacked concrete rubble with jackhammers. The smell of death filled the air, and, like most of the people we saw, we put on surgical masks to filter the dust, odors, and microorganisms.
Aydin and I stopped to let our hitchhiker out and met two schoolteachers—a husband and wife—sitting in a field surrounded by an upholstered couch, a dining room set, and various other pieces of furniture they had retrieved from a nearby apartment building. They pointed to where they had lived.
"We were on the fifth floor," said Gönül Güzel. Now it's the third. The top floors fell into the first two. Everyone on the bottom died."
"We have no idea what will happen to us," said his wife, Yücel. "People bring us food, but we have no desire to eat."
At the resort town of Yalova we met a friend of Aydin's named Hakki Akyazi. His eyes were swollen, and in a soft, slow voice he told us he had just buried his sister, a medical doctor who had lived in a new apartment complex there. The two had been on vacation together on the Aegean. She had decided to extend her stay and had returned to Yalova for the night to pick up more clothes.
When Hakki heard of the earthquake, he rushed to her building, which lay in ruins. No rescue teams had reached it. He figured out where her apartment would have been and for 12 hours worked alone to get inside her bedroom. When he finally did, he found her dead.
At dusk we took a ferry from Yalova back to Istanbul across the Sea of Marmara. As we left the dock, I watched dump trucks pull up to the shore and empty the rubble of so many lost lives into the water. There was no other place to put it. Our boat was packed with mourners, and the setting sun turned the water deep red. It seemed as if we had been to a thousand funerals all in one day.
The next morning we visited Istanbul Technical University to speak with geologists struggling to understand exactly what had happened along the North Anatolian Fault.
"We knew that the Gölcük area was where the fault was likely to break next," said Rob Reilinger, an American geophysicist from MIT. Reilinger uses the satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) to track deformations or swellings of the Earth's surface that indicate where pressure is building underneath. "We just didn't know when this earthquake would happen or how much of the fault would break."
Scientists are able to explain some earthquake phenomena that puzzled the people of Gölcük. The flash of light that İsmet Koyun saw over the Sea of Marmara may have been methane gas exploding as it was released from sediments in the gulf. The dead crabs and jellyfish seen at Gölcük could have been killed by radon gas seeping from rock in the Earth's crust into the water just prior to the rupture.
But there is much the scientists still do not understand, and much that disturbs them. This earthquake, explained geologist Aykut Barka, was part of a sequence that began along the North Anatolian Fault in 1939 near its eastern end. Historically each section of the fault in Turkey breaks on average every several hundred years. Before this earthquake the only stretch of the main fault that had not broken in the 20th century extended from the city of Bolu, about 90 miles (185 kilometers) east of Gölcük, to the western end of the Sea of Marmara—a distance of about 220 miles (354 kilometers). The four fault segments that broke on August 17 account for only about 70 miles (113 kilometers) of the 220 (354) at risk. This earthquake probably pumped additional strain into unbroken segments.
Most worrisome are about a hundred unbroken miles (161 kilometers) of the fault that lie deep beneath the Sea of Marmara, passing less than 15 miles (21 kilometers) from Istanbul. Scientists do not understand well the structure of that obscured stretch, but they know it poses dangers. Nicholas Ambraseys, a specialist in historical earthquakes at Imperial College in London, notes that 40 earthquakes of magnitude 7 and above had hit the Marmara region since the first century A.D. In 1509 and again in 1766, great earthquakes destroyed much of Istanbul. Both may have been part of a 250-year rupture cycle. Some experts now argue that one or more events at least as large as the August quake will occur in the sea south of Istanbul in coming decades.
How bad might the next Istanbul quake be? That depends in part on how far the epicenter is from the city. It also depends on whether the fault segments beneath the Sea of Marmara break together or independently. Together they could create an earthquake as strong as magnitude 7.8—about four times stronger than the August earthquake.
A week after the earthquake I received permission from the Turkish Navy to walk where the North Anatolian Fault did some of its most spectacular damage: the Gölcük Naval Command Center, the largest naval base in Turkey. When the quake tore through the Gulf of İzmit, it devastated the compound, toppling buildings and killing hundreds of people.
"I've been in many earthquakes, but nothing like this," recalled Ercüment Doğukanoğlu, a naval captain. "When it hit, I felt helpless—like being thrown every which way in a frying pan."
Heavy rain fell as a young second lieutenant, Selçuk Poyraz, led us across the ravaged base. "The rain is nice," said Selçuk. "It washes away the smell of death, which gets into everything. I have to put cologne in my car, on my clothes."
He walked us to a green lawn and pointed at what looked like the burrow of a gigantic mole cutting across the base, creating a scarp several feet high. In its path lay the ruins of an officers' club, where scores died in their sleep.
We followed the burrow until it opened into a crack so wide I had to jump to cross it. We reached a place where the crack had split a stone wall, thrusting the south end eight feet (2.4 meters) to the west in the middle of the street it once bordered. The same crack also pushed an entire apartment building across the street several feet closer to Greece.
As the earthquake faded from the world's headlines, its miseries persisted. I returned to Turkey in late October. The official death count stood at just over 17,000, but the real toll may have been twice that. Winter was setting in, and although people were being fed adequately by organizations such as the Red Crescent, warm clothes remained in government warehouses undistributed. With more than 85,000 buildings destroyed or uninhabitable, about 40,000 families were living in 168 tent cities. Few tents were winterized.
Psychological problems were mounting. Many men remained jobless and idle. Many of the neighborhood coffeehouses they relied on for socializing were gone, replaced by scattered coffee tents. Children played and attended school in several overcrowded tents. So many teachers died in Adapazari that in one district only two remained to look after 2,000 children.
As a group, the women displaced from their homes may have been suffering the most. "They have no place to go to be together," said Mebuse Tekay, a relief coordinator for 128 nongovernment volunteer groups.
Despite the crisis, Mebuse pointed to positive changes the earthquake brought.
"It has collapsed some taboos," she said. "Many Turkish people thought they had no friends in the world except other Turks. But so many foreigners came to help us, we now must see a new reality. Even the Greeks proved not to be our enemies. Television showed a Greek team crying after they rescued a little girl.
"Also many of the people rushing to help were from arts groups. Now many traditional Turks have had to change their biases toward men who have long hair or earrings and women in miniskirts. It was those people who showed up first."
On November 12 the North Anatolian Fault struck again. Stress from the August quake triggered a rupture along a segment of the fault east of the earlier break. The second quake measured magnitude 7.1. It hit a much less populated region but still killed more than 800 people and injured at least 5,000.
In the town of Kaynaşli, Özgür Akbulut's father and older brother had just left evening prayers at the mosque when the temblor hit. As most of the town's buildings buckled, the mosque's towering minaret crashed down on the two men, crushing them to death.
On a cold and drizzling December morning I met 15-year-old Özgür in the nearby village of Handanoğlu, where he was living in a tent with surviving relatives. As I talked with the men of the village in the parlor of a farmhouse that had survived the quake, Özgür sat silently by the stove, warming his hands. He smiled occasionally but mostly stared vacantly ahead.
"These earthquakes are tests from God, said Memet Bayindir, a wizened 92-year-old. "We should build houses the old way—from chestnut wood. They don't collapse."
His grandson Hüseyin agreed. "I accept that this was a geologic event, but it can be taken as a warning. In seconds, billionaires can become penniless. So you must have values that you can't lose—a good heart and honesty."
Although smaller, Kaynaşli looked like Gölcük all over again—streets lined with shattered buildings and mournful people struggling to rebuild. I headed back to Gölcük, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) away, to see how people there had coped in the intervening months.
The nightmare hadn't gone away. Bulldozers had cleared most of the piles of rubble, and temporary prefabricated houses had risen rapidly outside the town. But Gölcük itself was still a city in shambles. I found İsmet Koyun again in a coffeehouse by the waterfront.
"There's not much else to do," he said as we drank tea with his friends. "Gölcük is dead. Most people have left. The government hasn't decided whether the city should be rebuilt."
At dusk, İsmet took me to the water's edge, where he had watched his city collapse. We clambered over twisted rebars and mud-caked chunks of concrete to the seven-story building where the 50 men had perished in the sunken café. We watched the water lap into what had been the building's third floor.
"Thirteen bodies were never found," he said. Darkness fell, and I could only think of one thing to say: "Geçmiş olsun. May it be over."
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
A new study on marmoset monkeys offers some hints about the causes of stillbirth.
When the brine used to make pickles is disposed of, it can contaminate wetlands. So, one company is changing its recipe.
Shop Our Space Collection
The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.