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Turkey detains those suspected of violating construction codes

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Back in Turkey, a week after the earthquake, some are starting to assign blame for why some of those structures collapsed in the first place. And officials are detaining some people who they say were involved in the construction of those buildings. NPR's Peter Kenyon is with us now from Istanbul. Peter, thanks so much for being here.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit about where you've been the last few days and if you'd just tell us a little bit about what you saw, like the scale of the destruction that you saw.

KENYON: Well, I was in Adana. It's a city on the western side of the earthquake zone. And parts of the city are still in pretty good shape. But there are areas where the earthquake did just as much damage as it did elsewhere. And you see big piles of rubble, trapped bodies like we've been seeing across much of southern Turkey and northern Syria.

MARTIN: So what do we know about this investigation of people involved in the construction of these collapsed buildings?

KENYON: Well, this is a pretty new development, and it's still in the very early stages, but it looks like Turkish prosecutors have been given the green light to go after people suspected of having played a role in what critics call the long-running practice of evading building codes designed specifically to make buildings more earthquake-resistant. Now, this isn't really new in Turkey. It's been a lot of complaints about things like this in the numerous earthquakes over the past decades. But this is a little bit different. I mean, this time, unlike in the aftermath of past quakes, Turkey's justice officials may actually be prepared to hold to account those found to have had a role in the construction of these substandard buildings. That, of course, remains to be seen.

MARTIN: Are there specific laws that they're accused of violating?

KENYON: Yes. Yes, quite a few, actually. I mean, Turkey's justice minister says those under investigation are suspected of violating construction codes put in place following the 1999 earthquake near Istanbul. And that one killed some 17,000 people. And as you noted at the top, this quake's death toll is already far higher than that. And I'm hearing stories resurfacing about practices such as so-called construction amnesties. They began decades ago but continued until just a few years ago. And these are basically moves that allow contractors to cut corners. And critics say that has left buildings more vulnerable to earthquakes. Now, my NPR colleagues have been hearing that some builders had certain moves, such as concealing extra stories, maybe building them below ground or other tricks. Here's a real estate broker. His name is Sonmez. He's from Islahiye. Here's what he had to say.

SHAYMIS SONMEZ: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: Now, he's saying the builder gets permission to build four stories, but he builds eight. And he gets people in there very quickly. And the result is it's harder for the state to do too much about it. Now, though, things seem to be different. We're hearing reports of contractors being arrested at the Istanbul airport, reportedly attempting to flee the country.

MARTIN: So, Peter, before we let you go, we've been hearing stories all week about rescue efforts. As we said, it's been a week now. Are they still looking for survivors?

KENYON: They are. And while the numbers have dropped off since the first few days, crews are still finding people alive. In the Turkish city of Antakya, a Syrian man was pulled to safety after 156 hours under the rubble. The city of Hatay released videos showing rescues of a father and daughter and a 10-year-old girl. Now, on the other hand, we're hearing that the Israeli rescue team has suddenly decided to leave Turkey after receiving intelligence that a threat to their safety could be imminent.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thank you so much.

KENYON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.