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Turkish region still wiping away tears 11 years after earthquake

KOCAELİ - Hürriyet Daily News | 8/17/2010 12:00:00 AM | ERİSA DAUTAJ ŞENERDEM

In the summer of 1999, Mehmet Eren was spending his school break working at his uncle’s small store in northwestern Turkey. Homesick, the 13-year-old picked a sadly unfortunate time to go back and visit his mother.

In the summer of 1999, Mehmet Eren was spending his school break working at his uncle’s small store in northwestern Turkey. Homesick, the 13-year-old picked a sadly unfortunate time to go back and visit his mother.

“He told his uncle that he was missing his mother and wanted to go home, even though it was not the weekend yet, when he would normally go back,” another uncle, Ziya Dobra, 68, said in a trembling voice while wiping away tears.

Mehmet Eren left his uncle’s house on the night of Aug. 16 and took the last bus from İzmit to his hometown of Gölcük, both part of the northwestern province of Kocaeli, and knocked on the door of his family’s home.

The teenager died that night in the Aug. 17, 1999, earthquake, along with his 16-year-old sister Esra, his mother, Sevinç, and her husband, Hüsseyin.

The family’s sad story is just one of thousands.

The Aug. 17 earthquake, the last major one to hit the Marmara region, killed nearly 17,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage, according to official figures. Measuring a magnitude of 7.6 on the Richter scale, the quake had its epicenter in Kocaeli, about 70 kilometers from Istanbul.

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Dobra, Sevinç Eren’s brother, had come Tuesday to sit near the family tomb in one of Gölcük’s many earthquake-memorial cemeteries a couple of hours before the official commemoration ceremony, where people gathered to read religious prayers to the souls of their lost loved ones.

“It is impossible not to come by here and visit them,” Dobra told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.

The deadly earthquake and its many victims were commemorated in ceremonies at memorial cemeteries throughout the Gölcük Municipality, some starting Monday night and continuing until 3:02 a.m. on Tuesday, the exact time the earthquake occurred 11 years ago.

Hundreds of people gathered in front of the 17 August Monument in the town’s coastal district of Kavaklı, where at 3:02 a.m., after making their wishes, they let 250 balloons go free in the sky and threw red flowers into the sea in memory of their loved ones who died the night of the earthquake.

“I was sleeping on the balcony when I suddenly heard a noise, then looked down to the seaside, when I saw something like a red light, an explosion,” Dobra said, remembering that night. “Our house started shaking, and we knew it was an earthquake. It felt like the ground itself was walking.”

After the first big shock, Dobra made sure his wife was fine, as his children were out of town at the time, and then went out to learn what had happened to his relatives. “I decided to walk with my cousin down to the coast, where my sister was living,” he said, explaining that no one could drive because the streets were blocked by rubble from the many buildings that had collapsed.

Eventually, he came upon the remains of the six-story building where his sister had lived with her family.

“Everyone wanted to take their relatives and possessions out of the ruins, but it was impossible,” Dobra said, bursting into tears. There was not enough excavation equipment to search for every body or potential survivor. “Only wealthy people, who could pay for the digger and the digger operator, managed to get the bodies of their relatives and some of their possessions out from under the ruins,” he said.

Dobra’s family could not afford a digger, but asked Hüsseyin’s brother, who worked in a factory in İzmir, to get one from his workplace. They waited for days before learning it had been taken to the nearby region of Yalova, which had also been hit by the quake.

“We went to Yalova and managed to take it back, then came to Gölcük exactly one week after the earthquake occurred,” Dobra said, adding that the family waited another day for the digger operator to rest after six sleepless nights removing bodies from the ruins in Yalova. When they finally found the bodies of his sister and her family, he said, he realized Sevinç and Hüssseyin had come very close to surviving.

“We found their bodies right at the entrance of the building,” he said, adding that Mehmet and Esra’s bodies were found under the ruins of the neighboring block of apartments, and that the furniture from apartments in different blocks had all gotten mixed up in the rubble.

With tears streaming, Dobra said the pain was still strong and deep although 11 years had passed. “Esra would have become a doctor by now,” he said.

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