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Is it safe to go home? With hard hats and phone apps, Turkish engineers are looking for answers

SAMANDAG, Turkey — Yasin Pinarbasi usually works in an office in the Turkish capital Ankara. Now the civil engineer is stepping on unstable earthquake debris inside a four-story apartment building northeast of Samandag city.

From the outside the building appears to be in pretty good condition but once you enter there is a cinder block wall that has collapsed on the ground floor. Pieces of plaster and broken tiles are scattered over the entrance.

“This building is very damaged,” says Pinarbasi. “It must be demolished.”

This building, like many others in urban Turkey, has street-level shops and apartments on the upper floors. Unlike many structures in the area, this one is still standing. The apartments appear intact from the outside. But Pinarbasi points out that several support pillars on the ground floor are cracked or completely severed where they connect to the beams above.

“This is very typical [earthquake] damage to the columns, which we call irreparable,” he says.

The devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit on February 6 left more than 39,000 people dead and more than a million made homeless in Turkey alone, where tens of thousands of buildings were destroyed or badly damaged. More than 3,600 people have died in neighboring Syria.

Now, hundreds of engineers are moving through the blasted areas of southern Turkey, as part of a process to see how safe the buildings are for the people who live there.

Pinarbasi has volunteered as one of them, inspecting buildings and reporting initial damage assessments to the government, which he says must make the final decision on which structures are habitable.

Cracked columns and beams

Buildings constructed in recent decades largely have concrete pillars and beams.

“In these types of buildings, if a column or some of them are damaged like this,” he says, pointing to the crumpled concrete where a column connects to the beam above it, “the the loads are transferred to the other columns. Now they’re overloaded.” And that stress can cause those remaining columns to collapse. “These are dangerous,” he says.

A national engineering association has awarded Pinarbasi an area on the road between Samandag and Antakya.

He has an app on his phone with every building in the area marked on a map. Those that have not yet been inspected are white. Once a building has been checked, it appears green.

If a building has already collapsed, enter “destroyed” in the app and move on.

Anger at the poor construction

The next building on his list is a restaurant with a large garden that serves as a wedding venue. “There are some cracks on the separation walls but not on the beams and columns,” Pinarbasi says, as he and his colleague Onur Tezcan Okut survey the building.

This little damage does not concern him. There may be cracks in the curtain walls – some walls may have even collapsed altogether – and the building can still be considered structurally sound. Pinarbasi is looking for any damage to the columns or beams.

Engineers cut away some of the plaster to expose the beams underneath. Some of the windows in the restaurant are shattered. From the front, Pinarbasi says the building appears to have performed quite well structurally during the disaster.

But then they go to the back of the building and find some hairline cracks in the support columns. Even worse, the concrete of the columns crumbles when they are scraped with a hammer.

“It’s probably poor quality concrete,” says Pinarbasi.

He opens the app on his phone, uploads a couple photos of the building, and enters the estimated square footage and year built. He then classifies it as “moderately damaged”.

Nationwide there was outrage over buildings that collapsed in the disaster due to shoddy construction, substandard materials, and failure to comply with building codes. Some new apartment buildings, advertised as being built to the highest earthquake standards, crumbled during the earthquake.

In addition to the tens of thousands of collapsed buildings, Turkey’s environment and urbanization minister says another 50,000 “must be demolished urgently”.

Petrified to go home

Up the hill from the restaurant, Pinarbasi and Okut move into a gray four-story apartment building. It stands alone on a hill surrounded by olive trees. It’s still intact. It has all its windows and there are no visible cracks in the facade.

When Pinarbasi knocks and tries the siren, no one answers. It turns out that many of the residents live in a barn behind the building.

Samir Kanar and three of his sons go out to talk to engineers.

Kanar and his four brothers built the building in 2008. Kanar says he and his extended family were sleeping in it when the earthquake hit, but none of them have slept in it since. After the trauma of the disaster they are all afraid to enter.

“It was very difficult emotionally,” Kanar tells Pinarbasi as he leads him to the front door. “I have a 2 1/2 year old daughter and when she gets close to the house she starts crying.”

More than a week after the earthquake, the apartments inside are in much the same condition as when the family escaped on the morning of 6 February. Glass jars of tomato preserves are smashed on the kitchen floor. The refrigerator and cabinet doors fly open and spill their contents. Tables and even a wood stove are turned over.

But there are no cracks in the plaster walls. Pinarbasi says he doesn’t see any structural damage to the building. Kanar, however, insists that if you stand up from the front, you can see that the building is now leaning. Pinarbasi disagrees, saying if it were tilted there would be evidence in its structural components, particularly at the corners. Kanar is not convinced but continues walking around the building with Pinarbasi.

The resident’s sister-in-law, Gonul Kanar, lived on the second floor. Her husband works in the Persian Gulf, so she was alone with her four children when the earthquake hit. She says she gathered all of her children and tried to lie on top of them to protect them as the room shook around them.

Now she says she never wants to go back to her apartment. “I don’t think she’ll live here again,” she says as tears well up in her eyes. “How do I get out of the building with four kids? Which one do I choose to pick up?”

The problem here is bigger than structural engineering. It’s about fear and anxiety and a lack of faith in the way buildings are built.

Gonul Kanar says he wants to build a small steel-frame house on the property, with only one story so he can live on the ground floor. He says he’d even rather live in a shipping container than go back to the apartment behind her.

Pinarbasi marks your building as undamaged in the app. With so many buildings damaged across the country, every engineer is looking to inspect 60 a day. He and his colleague Okut go down the hill to the next one.

Samantha Balaban and Tugba Ocek contributed to this story.

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