Turkish quake: Japanese aid worker among the dead

November 10, 2011 - 1:10 PM
Turkey Quake

Rescuers search for survivors in the rubble of a collapsed hotel in Van, eastern Turkey, late Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. An earthquake struck eastern Turkey on Wednesday night, killing at least three people and leaving dozens trapped in the rubble of toppled buildings damaged in the previous temblor, which had killed 600 people. About 20 buildings collapsed in the provincial capital of Van following a 5.7-magnitude quake, according to media reports.(AP Photo/Evrim Aydin, Anatolia) TURKEY OUT

VAN, Turkey (AP) — Japanese aid worker Atsushi Miyazaki came to Turkey in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake last month, tasked with assessing damage and distributing relief supplies to survivors. Then he too became a victim of Turkey's treacherous fault lines on Thursday, fatally injured when a hotel, weakened by the earlier tremor, collapsed in a second quake that killed at least nine others.

Dozens of angry residents protested at the rubble of the downtown hotel where 41-year-old Miyazaki died, arguing that authorities should have closed it and another leveled hotel because they had been damaged by the first temblor.

Riot police used pepper spray to halt the protests.

The demonstration erupted as rescue workers with pickaxes and earth-movers searched for survivors of Wednesday night's magnitude-5.7 quake, which hit the same region slammed by a magnitude-7.2 temblor on Oct. 23 that left 600 people dead in the eastern province of Van.

Some 28 people were pulled out of the rubble in the provincial capital, also called Van, as frantic rescue efforts began Wednesday evening and lasted through the night under high-powered lights. All 10 fatalities occurred in the two collapsed hotels.

Turkey's Anatolia agency said Miyazaki, of Japan's Association for Aid and Relief, Japan, died in a hospital after being dug out Thursday from the rubble of the five-story Bayram Hotel at the intersection of two main roads. Rescue workers performed CPR on him before taking him to the hospital.

"We first heard a voice but could not determine whether it was that of a woman or a man. Then we opened a small hole in the concrete where we thought the voice came," a Turkish rescue worker told state-run TRT television. "When I checked inside with my hand, he suddenly grabbed my fingers. I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life."

TRT did not identify the rescue worker.

Miyazaki's 32-year-old female colleague, Miyuki Konnai, was rescued alive from the wreckage of the same hotel late Wednesday, and the aid group said she was in stable condition.

"We spoke with her briefly, she is in a hospital," manager Ikuko Natori told The Associated Press by telephone from Tokyo. "She had a slight injury, but it is not life-threatening."

Yumeka Ota, a third worker who traveled to Turkey with Miyazaki and Konnai, had returned to Japan before the second quake.

Some of those buried on Wednesday were Turkish journalists covering the aftermath of the first earthquake, which left thousands homeless as cold weather began to close in on the mountainous region.

The Japanese aid group that employed Miyazaki said his interest in international politics had led him to pursue a degree in conflict resolution studies in Britain. Prior to joining the group, he worked for a non-governmental organization that provides humanitarian aid in the Philippines.

Turks paid tribute to Miyazaki on Twitter, calling him a benefactor and lamenting the fact that he died in a relatively weak earthquake compared to the massive one and tsunami that devastated Japan earlier this year.

Miyazaki had helped distribute meat this past week to quake survivors in Van province during Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, the daily Vatan newspaper said.

The Japanese workers had told locals that they were thankful for the Turkish support during the quake and tsunami disasters in Japan earlier this year, the paper said. Turkey had also sent aid workers to Japan.

The Bayram Hotel survived the Oct. 23 quake with some cracks and a damaged elevator. But it toppled in the new, quake, trapping an undetermined number of people under tons of concrete and twisted metal.

The Aslan Hotel, a budget operation in Van, also collapsed.

"How is it that these two buildings were not sealed off and were allowed to continue operating?" asked Osman Baydemir, a mayor for the southeastern city of Diyarbakir and a member of a pro-Kurdish opposition party. "The government must bring those responsible to account."

Residents accused local authorities of not properly inspecting damaged buildings and called for the resignation of Gov. Munir Karaloglu, who arrived to tour the damage. Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay tried to talk to the protesters, but he angrily walked away as they booed the officials.

Riot police then charged the crowd with batons, and some people fell in the melee. Police used pepper spray to disperse the protesters, but the gas also affected nearby rescue and health workers, the Hurriyet newspaper said on its website.

Atalay said no one knows yet if officials had made a mistake by allowing the hotel to operate after the first quake, and urged patience until a full assessment is done. He said the latest quake knocked down 25 buildings in Van, but only two of those buildings, both hotels, were occupied.

Tough safety codes were approved a decade ago after earthquakes in western Turkey killed 18,000 people and prompted an outcry over the poor quality of construction, but enforcement has remained lax. After last month's quake, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the negligence of municipalities, builders and supervisors over building codes amounted to murder.

Two reporters from Turkey's Dogan news agency were still believed to be trapped in the hotel debris.

Recep Salci, a member of the search and rescue group Akut, said sniffer dogs had indicated that more survivors might be under the hotel rubble.

Some trapped journalists had sent text messages to colleagues asking to be rescued, said Ozgur Gunes, a cameraman for Turkey's Cihan news agency. He had left the hotel before the quake, but rushed back to collect his camera after it struck, only to find that the building had collapsed.

For the second time in a month, the government has dispatched hundreds of rescue workers to Van province. The October temblor destroyed at least 2,000 buildings in Van and in the worst-hit town of Ercis. About 1,400 aftershocks have rocked the region since then.

Many residents had been living in tents despite the cold, too afraid to return home.

The latest earthquake measured 5.7 and its epicenter was 9 miles (16 kilometers) south of Van.

Dogan Kalafat of Istanbul's Kandilli observatory warned that more tremors could follow in the region, which is crisscrossed by many fault lines.

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Associated Press writers Selcan Hacaoglu and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed.