By David Gauthier-Villars and Natalie Thomas
MALATYA, Turkey (Reuters) - The Trend Garden Residence, an upscale serviced apartment building in the Turkish city of Malatya, boasted a gym, freshly-furnished rooms and a roof-top cafeteria.
But when a powerful earthquake jolted the city in the early hours of Feb. 6, the seven-floored building disintegrated, killing 29 people, according to two government officials. It was as if the structure had “liquefied,” one survivor said.
Beneath its colourful facade, the building had been extensively remodelled a few years ago without the necessary permits, but was later registered thanks to a 2018 zoning amnesty promulgated by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to a Reuters review of municipal and amnesty documents, architects drawings and interviews with six people familiar with the Trend Garden’s history.
Erdogan at the time said the amnesty, which was first granted to building owners ahead of his 2018 re-election, was aimed at resolving conflicts between citizens and the state over millions of buildings “constructed in violation of urban planning.”
Now, the wrecked Trend Garden is the subject of a criminal investigation to determine responsibility for its collapse. Local prosecutors have arrested at least three people connected to the building on preliminary charges of causing death by negligence, according to the two government officials who asked not to be named. The officials said the investigation would consider all aspects of the building’s life.
As focus in Turkey intensifies on how poor construction may have contributed to the devastation caused by the earthquake, the deadliest natural disaster in the country’s modern history, authorities have pledged to identify culprits. More than 230 people have been arrested, including building contractors and developers, the government said.
The earthquake has left more than 50,000 people dead in Turkey and Syria, and aftershocks continue to rock the region. The Trend Garden was one of the more than 200,000 buildings that Turkish authorities say collapsed or are in urgent need of demolition in the regions shredded by the earthquake. A further earthquake on Monday caused more buildings in Malatya to collapse.
The Turkish presidency’s communications directorate and the urbanisation ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment, including on the amnesty and whether the policy contributed to the devastation triggered by the earthquake. Erdogan, who has led Turkey since 2003, said following the disaster that building standards have improved under his watch.
Among those arrested as part of the Trend Garden probe is Engin Aslan, according to the government officials. Corporate records show he is the majority owner of a Turkish company that, according to land registration documents, owns the building. Contacted by Reuters via an employee of the apartment building’s management prior to being arrested, Aslan said he wouldn’t speak to the news agency because he was mourning the loss of his brother who was killed in the Trend Garden's collapse.
A lawyer for Aslan, Muhammet Karadogan, declined to comment.
Architects and civil engineers said it was too early to determine whether the building’s remodelling, which involved dividing 12 apartments into 42 smaller units and transforming the attic into a full-fledged seventh floor, contributed to the collapse.
But they said the amnesty law raises fundamental problems because it has fostered a reckless culture in the construction business in a country that sits on major fault lines and faces well-identified earthquake risks.
Under the amnesty, owners could legalise unregistered buildings by filing an electronic application and paying a tax. Detailed guidance issued by the urbanisation ministry, which oversaw the process, makes no mention of a requirement for independent assessment. However, the law stipulates that the owner is responsible for ensuring the building is earthquake resistant.
“That law is nonsensical,” said Erol Erdal, a member of the Malatya branch of Turkey’s Chamber of Civil Engineers. “The government and the laws are meant to protect people, not put them in harm’s way.”
Malatya Mayor Selahattin Gurkan declined to comment on the Trend Garden’s collapse, citing the ongoing probe, but told Reuters that authorities needed to learn lessons from the earthquake. Asked if regularising illegal buildings might have caused safety hazards, the mayor - a member of Erdogan’s ruling AK Party (AKP) - said “the zoning amnesty wasn’t the correct approach.”
Among those killed in the Trend Garden’s collapse were four members of Fatma Zehra Gorgulu’s family - her three children and one of her sisters.
Sitting by a fire near the wrecked building amid freezing temperature for a sixth day after the earthquake, Gorgulu remained silent and appeared transfixed, as rescue teams combed the rubble and she waited for news.
Feyza Yilmaz, a third sister, had come to Malatya to help her sibling following the disaster. Yilmaz explained the family had rented a room at the Trend Garden because it was close to a hospital where one of Gorgulu’s children needed to undergo treatment for a rare condition and she also had scheduled surgery. When the earthquake struck, Gorgulu was at the hospital while her daughter and two sons were being looked after by the other sister at the residence.
Yilmaz, a 32-year old lawyer, said she wanted to understand how a modern, sturdy-looking building could crumble like a house of cards.
“I want to know who is responsible for this,” she said.
The following day, the four bodies were recovered, according to rescuers.
The Trend Garden building – and the 2018 zoning amnesty law – are emblematic of what some architects and civil engineers say is Turkey’s failure to impose stringent antiseismic regulations under Erdogan, as the country’s population of 85 million continued shifting to urban centres.
Ahead of 2018 presidential elections and municipal ones in 2019, Erdogan hailed the zoning amnesty as “a gesture of compassion” towards Turkish citizens confronted with a finicky administration. Addressing an AKP rally in Malatya in March 2019, the president told supporters that thanks to the policy “the problems of 88,507 Malatya citizens have been resolved,” according to a video of his speech.
Turkish authorities extended the amnesty several times. The move has generated billions of dollars for state coffers, according to the government. More than 3 million households and companies obtained their deeds as a result, the government said in October last year.
That same month, an Erdogan ally, the Great Unity Party’s leader Mustafa Destici, proposed reviving the measure ahead of this year’s presidential elections in order to help others. Destici didn’t respond to a request for comment relayed via a spokesperson on whether he continued to support the proposal.
In 2019, after a building in Istanbul that had benefited from the zoning amnesty collapsed, causing 21 deaths, the government vowed to accelerate a plan to demolish and replace Turkey’s most dangerous buildings. At the time, the government said about a third of the country’s 20 million properties raised safety concerns and required action.
But Turkish authorities neglected the issue, according to Eyup Muhcu, head of Turkey’s Chamber of Architects. Instead, the government focused on construction in new areas, “abandoning problematic buildings to their fate,” he said.
The urbanisation ministry also didn’t respond to questions about how it dealt with problematic buildings and how many of the recently collapsed buildings had benefited from the amnesty.
The Trend Garden’s building was constructed more than two decades ago, in the late 1990s, following a typical Turkish real-estate pact where one party contributes the land and another takes charge of construction, while the two divvy up the units.
Bahattin Dogan, a building contractor from Malatya who is in his 70s, told Reuters that he did the construction. Bulent Yeroglu said his family brought the land. A 59-year-old civil engineer, Yeroglu said he also took responsibility for designing the building’s structure with steel reinforced concrete for the frame, and bricks for the infills.
Both men said they had followed all applicable rules and took no shortcuts. Reuters wasn’t able to independently corroborate that.
Architects drawings of the original structure and building permits dated 1996 and later seen by Reuters, as well as a satellite image from 2010, show the building had initially consisted of a ground floor with commercial space, and 12 apartments on six stories above plus an attic.
Presented with the drawings, one forensic engineering specialist, Eduardo Fierro of California-based BFP Engineers, said the building appeared to have “a reasonably well-engineered frame.” Fierro said, however, that it had a so-called “soft story” or inherent weakness on the ground level, with a higher ceiling and fewer walls or partitions to accommodate the commercial area. He, and several other specialists consulted by Reuters, agreed that determining whether remodelling played a role in the building’s collapse wasn’t possible without more information. Reuters had no evidence that the remodelling was a factor in the catastrophe.
Yeroglu said he got the commercial area and that he had split it into two spaces over a decade ago, selling them to two pharmacists. Both pharmacists told Reuters they acquired the commercial space after it was divided and didn’t make any changes to the building.
Building contractor Dogan, who got the 12 apartments, said he sold them in mid 2018 to Aslan, one of the individuals the government officials said had been arrested.
Reuters couldn’t determine if Aslan or someone else took responsibility for the remodelling into 42 units because the building’s ownership kept evolving around the time it happened.
A municipal official said the remodelling was done without applying for permission, which he and other local buildings specialists said should have been sought for such a transformation. “There is no trace of an application,” the official said after consulting building records in Malatya’s Yesilyurt district.
If an application had been made, the official added, it would likely have been rejected because the municipality is generally opposed to allowing remodelling of older buildings that have “tired” structures.
A spokesperson for the Yesilyurt district municipality, where Trend Garden was located, declined to comment about the building’s registration history.
What is clear is that the urbanisation ministry issued amnesty decisions in December 2019 “on the basis of information provided by the applicant” for 42 apartments at the address of the Trend Garden, according to 42 amnesty documents seen by Reuters.
Land registry documents reviewed by Reuters show that a Malatya-based company called Trend Yurt used the amnesty decisions to obtain the building’s deed in November 2020.
Aslan has been Trend Yurt’s majority owner and manager since March 2020, according to corporate records.
The two government officials said those arrested also included Sefa Gulfirat, who founded Trend Yurt in 2018, corporate records show, and Yeroglu, the civil engineer who designed the building’s structure.
Speaking to Reuters before his arrest, Yeroglu said he believed the building collapsed because its structure was damaged during the remodelling.
A lawyer who represented him when he was arrested, Ozgur Akkas, said Yeroglu would contest that he caused death by negligence on the grounds that his responsibility as a civil engineer had elapsed. Contacted by Reuters, one of Yeroglu’s relatives rejected the notion that the building had an inherent weakness, saying the civil engineer had designed the structure carefully, including the commercial area.
Aslan’s lawyer Karadogan is also representing Gulfirat. The lawyer also declined to comment on Gulfirat’s behalf.
Following further refurbishment, the attic became a seventh floor with a cafeteria and the serviced apartments opened in late 2021, according to Anil Ozhan, whose family owns a pharmacy in one of the commercial spaces on the ground floor, and other locals. A photo posted online by the Trend Garden Residence in late 2021 shows the building following these refurbishments, including blue and ochre trims, emblazoned with the company’s name and a full-height, glass-fronted seventh floor.
Ozhan said he was aware the building had benefited from the zoning amnesty but the pharmacist believed the remodelling had been thoroughly assessed before the amnesty was granted. “I’d be mad if I heard it wasn’t,” he said.
‘I THOUGHT I WAS DEAD’
At 4.17am on Feb. 6, the snow-covered ground around the Trend Garden began shaking violently, according to footage captured by closed circuit television.
Onur Gencler, a manager at a construction company, was sleeping on the sixth floor. When he understood what was happening, he pulled two beds close together and laid between them wrapped in comforters after grabbing his cellphone.
The building shook for a long minute, he said, and then collapsed in a matter of seconds, plunging him in darkness.
“I thought I was dead,” Gencler said. “It’s only when I turned on my phone and saw the picture of my wife and son, that I understood I was alive.”
About 90 minutes later, his boss Mehmet Kaya and colleagues who had rushed to the site pulled Gencler from under a slab of concrete with minor injuries.
After six hours of searching under heavy snow fall, Kaya said they found his 34-year-old cousin Fatma, who was also staying at the serviced apartment building.
She was dead.
(Reporting by David Gauthier-Villars and Natalie Thomas; Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low)