Earthquake in Istanbul (1999)

Earthquake in Istanbul (1999)

Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

It was around 3:00am in Istanbul when the earth shook beneath us. My 6-month old baby slept in her pack-n-play at the foot of our bed, and my husband and I woke to a thunderous roar. My first thought was of terrorists’ bombs going off. When we had told friends we were going to Turkey to introduce our baby to the Turkish side of my husband’s family, everyone mentioned the terrorists. Growing up on the East Coast of America, I knew nothing of bathtubs and doorjambs, and the deafening cacophony associated with an earthquake. Instinctively I grabbed our baby and clutched her to my chest – a pose I held as I watched the chandelier above our bed swing wildly. My body folded around hers as she slept on. Furniture tumbled, as I swear I felt undulating waves of movement beneath me in such a way that a bed or a floor of an apartment building just DO NOT move. When the roar was continuous,20 seconds, 30 seconds, I knew it could not be bombs hitting the building next door . The 40 seconds felt like an hour.  MY BABY, MY BABY! Was the plea that circled through my mind.  In the days following, and thinking back still, I can not get over the feeling of terror that washed through me, but that is not it.

Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

It is the knowledge that countless other mothers had sat clutching their children that night the same was as me, only to have their buildings crumble on top of them.  The official death count is listed as 18,000, but Turkish authorities estimated it closer to 35,000 people who died that night in Turkey. Most of whom lived less than an hour outside of Istanbul in and around the city of Izmit, the epicenter of the earthquake.  Corrupt builders there had not followed building codes, and had put too much sand in the cement, so when that night stuck buildings literally crumbled.   The earthquake registered 7.6 on the Richter scale.  With the hundreds of continual aftershocks that shook Istanbul a couple of  Turkish scientists announced that everyone should sleep outside.  In 1999 the city of Istanbul had a population of over 9 million people, and they formed a carpet of humanity filling parks and lining highways to sleep outside that following night.  My father-in-law and my husband are both scientists and thought the suggestion was ridiculous.  I am not a scientist, and as the mother of a six month old baby, demanded that if the rest of Istanbul was sleeping outside, so would we.  My father-in-law called a close family friend, Ali, who had a yard, and asked if we could camp out there for the night.

Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

Ali, gracious as always, immediately agreed. So it was that we caravanned to Ali’s house with my husband’s aunt and uncle, his grandfather, his grandfather’s two body guards, their household staff of three, my father-in-Law, my husband, our infant and myself.  Our entourage sprawled around Ali’s yard, and once we were settled, he left for Izmit with his grown son to try to help dig people out.  It was a surreal trip, and a lesson in humility.   To feel the earth move like that under me was a reminder of how tiny we each are in the scheme of things.  How great and powerful the nature of the earth truly is over us all.

 

Have any of you experienced an earthquake? Did you know what was happening?

Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

Photo by Elizabeth Atalay

9 Responses

  1. Oh my goodness Elizabeth! That is truly scary! I had no idea. I am so glad you were all O’kay. It really is remarkable to see what nature could do. How sad for all those people that lost loved ones that day.

  2. It was so frightening, and devastating for Turkey. A very surreal experience to be there at that time.

  3. I grew up in California so earthquakes were pretty normal to me. That’s not to say they weren’t scary, but they were pretty common. We had a few really big ones in my lifetime (SF in 1989 and Northridge in 1993) and seeing the devastation caused by them was heartbreaking.

    • Those earthquakes must have been so frightening! I can’t imagine growing up with earthquakes as a common event! Glad you made it through o.k.!

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  5. Hi all! I would like to accept a job offer to teach English in Istanbul this coming September, as I am very intrigued but Turkish culture and cuisine, as well as the fact that Ive always wanted to visit the country. However, I’ll be there for 10 months, and I am SUPER scared of the expected earthquake happening while I’m there. Since there’s nothing anyone can do to control nature and I don’t want to let the slim chance of something happening affect my decision to take the job, I’m curious for more information. What is the earthquake protocol currently in Istanbul? Tsunami protocol? If any residents of Istanbul could help me out by providing some more info, I’d greatly appreciate it. I want to put my mind at ease and I want to start getting excited for my potential move overseas.

    I do apologize for sounding ignorant; being from New York my entire life means we really never had to deal with this type of scenario. I’m genuinely concerned as someone who has never been victim to a natural disaster in any way so far.

    Thanks for reading! And for responding in advance :)

    • Samantha, I’m going to get someone in Istanbul to respond about the protocol, but I want to say, first of all congratulations on your job opportunity. You will love Istanbul, it is a spectacular city and you will have an amazing experience there. The earthquake we were in was an 8.6 and the architecture in Istanbul held up incredibly well if that is of any comfort. I can relate to you not knowing what to expect since I am from the East Coast as well and had no idea what was going on when the earthquake hit in 1999. Good luck and enjoy your adventure!

      • Thanks Elizabeth.. I’m looking very forward to going. I’ve done a ton research on Istanbul and it really looks like somewhere I’d be happy to call home. Literally my single concern would be a natural disaster in the form of an earthquake and/or tsunami. From what I understand, the one expected to come before 2030 is going to move the fault just a few miles south of Istanbul in the sea of Marmara, which would directly affect the city, plus the possibility of setting of a potential tsunami that would move right toward Istanbul. If there’s anyone familiar with earthquake protocol/protection now in Istanbul, please provide some info for me. Thanks!

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