Why One Upscale Apartment Building Became a Death Trap in the Turkey Earthquakes
By Ben Hubbard, Anjali Singhvi, James Glanz, Mika Gröndahl, Elif Ince, Beril Eski and Safak TimurMay 11, 2023
Before dawn on Feb. 6, a powerful earthquake in southern Turkey destroyed an upscale apartment complex, killing hundreds. The staggering death toll was the consequence of a system that prioritized growth over safety.
This security camera footage from a gas station next door captured the panicked moments as the main building toppled over on its side.
“All of a sudden, everything started shaking.”
Hasan Dogruyol, gas station attendant
“I saw the wall separating from the corner where the door was.”
Reyhan Dinler, who was visiting relatives on the 5th floor
“Everything went dark. Falling felt like being in outer space.”
Emre Isik, a resident on the 5th floor
Renaissance Residence was a testament to Turkey’s grand ambitions, a large, iconic project designed to meet the rising expectations of an expanding middle class in a rapidly developing part of the country.
Towering over what was once farmland for wheat, okra and cotton, the upscale complex offered hotel-style amenities and helped transform the rural enclave of Ekinci into a bustling suburb, attracting judges, teachers, doctors, police officers and professional soccer players.
Despite significant earthquake risk, Selma Keskin, a lawyer and single mother who moved into a third-floor apartment with her adolescent son, was reassured by the pedigree of the building, a signature work of a prominent local firm headed by a well-known architect. “We never thought he would build a building that was not earthquake-proof,” Ms. Keskin said.
It was destined to fail.
Across southern Turkey, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake and a second major tremor hours later killed more than 50,000 people and devastated hundreds of thousands of buildings. Like many structures that collapsed, Renaissance was completed in the past decade, when updated seismic codes were supposed to ensure a building’s strength.
But a months-long investigation and forensic analysis by The New York Times found that the death toll at Renaissance, the site of one of the deadliest building collapses in the quake, was the tragic result of flawed design and minimal oversight.
A series of poor architectural decisions and risky design choices left the building unfit to handle the stress of the seismic forces. An engineer who reviewed the structural plans and detailed them to The Times said the building violated the basic tenets of engineering, leaving the ground floor particularly vulnerable.
The system of safety checks was deficient, characterized by a lack of regulatory enforcement and professional rigor. All along, local officials, private inspectors and building engineers missed the problems. The municipal adviser who issued the construction permit said he didn’t have the right software to check the developer’s calculations. An inspector who signed more than 100 reports on Renaissance said he had never heard of the building until after the collapse.
“I cannot explain what was the intention here with this design,” said Osman E. Ozbulut, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Virginia who researches earthquake-resilient design. “It’s the most puzzling building.”
The Renaissance contractors insist they followed all the codes in place at the time, but that the regulations were insufficient to withstand such a powerful earthquake.
The Times’s findings were based on an extensive review of government documents, court records, structural plans, architectural drawings, images of the building, as well as site visits and interviews with scores of engineers, seismologists, local officials, survivors and professionals associated with the project. Using that information, The Times constructed a 3-D model of Renaissance that revealed multiple weaknesses and several points of failure that could have brought the building down.
The main building in the Renaissance complex toppled over, evidence that the building had major vulnerabilities on the lower level and the south side.
When the earthquake hit, the three separate apartment towers that made up the main building fell in nearly identical ways, suggesting they were built with the same flaws.
Just a few inches apart, the 13-story towers — A1, A2 and A3 — were superficially joined, with the gaps between them sealed so they appeared as one building.
The columns, walls and other structural elements were designed differently for various parts of the building.
The two-level parking garage, the strongest part of the building, had the most concrete walls providing support.
On higher floors, the exterior walls as well as those between rooms and apartments were loaded with heavy masonry blocks, called infill.
Those blocks, shown mid-construction in this photo, help prevent swaying in a quake, and could explain why the upper floors remained largely intact.
on ground floor
The most vulnerable part of Renaissance was the ground floor, which had an open layout. To make room for recreational spaces, this level had fewer masonry blocks than elsewhere, as well as taller columns that were more susceptible to lateral motions in quakes.
That most likely created a vulnerability called a soft story.
The soft story flaw made the lower level more prone to swaying. The horizontal forces could have weakened the ground floor columns and possibly torn them apart.
Images of the wreckage made clear that all three towers broke off around the ground floor.
The building may have also been vulnerable to a phenomenon known as overturning.
In that type of situation, the movement of the upper floors creates a downward force on the ground floor columns, threatening their ability to remain intact.
Both the soft story and overturning probably played roles in destroying the ground floor columns, but experts varied in how much importance they assigned to each.
Ms. Keskin, the lawyer, was awake in her third-floor living room when the earthquake hit.
Rescuers later found her four stories below in the bottom of the parking garage, trapped in the rubble on the south side of one of the towers.
Ms. Keskin’s car, which was parked on the north side of the garage, survived without a scratch.
The difference in damage between the two sides was the result of Renaissance toppling southward.
The building fell southward, in part, because the framework of beams and columns was misaligned and the structural connections were insufficient between the two sides.
The strongest concrete walls, or the cores, were also clustered on the north side. Cores are essential for a building’s resistance to seismic forces.
Those flaws meant the south side didn’t benefit from the same seismic protections as the north side.
Renaissance’s long and thin shape was also a risky design in an earthquake zone. Even so, the towers should have been able to handle the seismic forces if they had had more robust and evenly placed structural supports.
Renaissance was a product of a building boom throughout Turkey, a pillar of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans for development and economic growth. Over his 20 years as Turkey’s predominant politician, new apartment buildings, malls, skyscrapers and neighborhoods have sprouted across the country. In a bid to remain in power, Mr. Erdogan, who faces a close election on Sunday, has promised to build hundreds of thousands of new homes across the quake zone in a year, which would require construction at a pace that many industry professionals worry could produce more vulnerable buildings.
The building craze hit Ekinci in the 2010s after a new highway connected the community to Antakya, the regional capital. Suddenly, town residents who owned farmland could build apartment buildings and become landlords, launching themselves up the economic ladder.
An active fault line crossed the area, which has been struck by powerful quakes throughout history. The government put in place checks to ensure that new buildings were safe. But it simultaneously undermined its own safety regime by allowing contractors to choose their own inspectors and issuing repeated amnesties for code violations that allowed flawed buildings to remain in place.
Renaissance sailed through a system of weak checks, The Times found. Unqualified local officials granted its permissions, building inspectors filed shoddy paperwork and ambition overtook caution as the towers rose.
“Everyone was happy because it was a beautiful building, with a garden and a pool,” Seyfettin Yeral, the local mayor when Renaissance was built, said in an interview. When asked if his council had considered earthquake risk when approving the project, he said: “Sadly, no.”
In a statement, the contractors disputed many of The Times’s findings, saying that they had followed all the necessary procedures; that the building’s bearing system was consistent and solid; and that the design of the ground floor did not make it a “soft story.”
They said that the collapse was the result of an extremely powerful seismic force that hit the building on its long, north side, pushing it over. Citing Turkish government data, they said the building had faced extraordinarily high levels of ground motion, which caused the land around Renaissance to behave like liquid, a phenomenon called liquefaction.
“We believe that Renaissance will be taught in construction engineering departments to engineering students as an example of a solid building that was built in accordance with the regulations but that still toppled,” they wrote. Renaissance would, they said, “set an example of the kinds of revisions that should be made to earthquake regulations to address land issues.”
In its investigation, The Times found no indications of liquefaction in the ground under Renaissance. Nor could The Times confirm the ground motion magnitudes at the site that were cited by the contractors. “We are aware there are likely some issues with the ground motion data collected during the Turkish earthquakes,” said Christine Goulet, director of the United States Geological Survey’s Earthquake Science Center. In a few cases, she said, the actual ground motion levels were significantly lower than the reported ones.
Most buildings around Renaissance remained standing, noted Baris Erkus, a structural engineer based in Istanbul who visited the site and dozens of others after the quake. If a building has been properly designed, “it would experience some large damage,” Dr. Erkus said, “but the structure would not fail in this manner.”
“When you entered the building, you would get goosebumps. It was like a hotel.”
Selcuk Ozkan, whose brother-in-law lived on the 6th floor
When Renaissance opened in the summer of 2013, the complex, which included the area’s largest residential building, cultivated a sense of exclusivity, the name emblazoned in orange and silver near the entrance. The lobby was designed to mimic a hotel, with a cafe where residents could socialize. The complex eventually featured a day care center, a pilates studio, a swimming pool, a hairdresser and ping pong tables.
“It looked very attractive,” said Mustafa Sahin, a dentist who often visited his parents there. “I would have liked to live in such a place, to raise a child there.”
The sense of safety was enhanced by the prestige of the builders. Two well-known brothers ran the company that built it, Antis Yapi. Yasar Coskun, the architect, was also the head of the province’s Chamber of Architects, a professional association. His brother, Yalcin, was one of the engineers who planned the structure and oversaw much of the construction. Both were graduates of prestigious technical universities.
Coskun family members and their friends owned many apartments in Renaissance, as did the mayor’s wife and the wife of the building’s main inspector, seeming to vouch for its quality.
The land was owned by the Sahin family, whose patriarch, Suleyman, a local businessman and politician, bought it as an investment. As housing demand in Ekinci grew, Mr. Sahin applied in 2006 to have the property zoned for construction.
That decision fell to the local council, nine men and the mayor, who were elected by residents. Some of them belonged to big families that similarly owned land to develop, according to Mr. Yeral, the former mayor. Serving on the council required no technical expertise, and only a few members had finished middle school. Most had only an elementary education.
Ali Gunsay, a former member who was on the council that approved the rezoning for the Renaissance plot, described a perfunctory process to approve zoning changes. “They would bring these in front of us, tell us to sign them and we would sign,” he said. “We didn’t research much.”
The municipality’s technical affairs director, Mehmet Ezer, who advised the council, said that he recommended against the rezoning, saying it was too generous for the area. Ekinci was small, with only about 6,700 residents in 2010.
Unlike the council members, Mr. Ezer was an engineering graduate of a prestigious university, but he said he had no power to challenge the council’s decisions. “These political bodies didn’t respect or take into account the opinions of technical personnel,” he said. “This was broken.”
Former council members said they did not recall Mr. Ezer voicing any opposition to Renaissance.
The council not only voted unanimously to zone the plot for construction, but also granted extremely generous building rights. It put no limits on the number of floors and allowed square footage nearly three times the size of the lot. It was a stunningly big building for such a rural area, and common only in dense parts of Turkey’s largest cities, urban planners said.
Mr. Ezer called it “logic-defying.”
Mr. Sahin, the landowner, said he had followed the required process. “We didn’t bribe anyone, didn’t give anyone anything,” he said. Construction was booming across Turkey at the time, so it was normal to get such zoning, he said.
Mr. Sahin later hired the Coskun brothers to develop the site. He said Yasar Coskun, the architect, assured him that Renaissance would be strong enough to withstand even a 9-magnitude earthquake. “I told him I would give him a very good deal,” Mr. Sahin said. “Just build it safely.”
Before construction began, the plan became even more grandiose. A contract from December 2009 between the Sahin family and the Coskuns reviewed by The Times shows three separate towers, a layout that reduces the possibility that one building will damage another during an earthquake. But an updated contract from September 2010 contained a new plan: three towers joined together into one long, skinny building, with a fourth, shorter building to the south. The early plan had only 156 units. The new one had 251, likely making the project more lucrative.
The contractors said in their statement that the change had been done to create more, smaller apartments that would be easier to sell, not to make more money.
2009 plan: 156 units
Three separate towers, spaced apart.
2010 plan: 251 units
Three towers made to appear as one,
and an additional building.
2009 plan: 156 units
2010 plan: 251 units
Three separate towers, spaced apart.
Three towers made to appear as one,
and an additional building.
When the company needed a construction permit, it fell to Mr. Ezer, the technical affairs director, to issue it.
At the time, he said, he was overloaded with work and did not have the software the developer had used to design the building and so could not check the calculations. But he issued the permit anyway and construction began.
On a cloudless day in May 2011, the Coskun brothers and a group of dignitaries in suits and hard hats pushed a button to pour concrete for Renaissance’s foundation. The attendees included the provincial governor appointed by Mr. Erdogan’s cabinet, later made Turkey’s national police chief.
In a speech, Sadullah Ergin, a lawmaker who served as Mr. Erdogan’s justice minister, praised the contractors and called on them to build even larger buildings. “We expect more original and bigger projects from them,” Mr. Ergin said.
Under Turkish regulations, Renaissance had to be inspected frequently during construction.
At the time, construction companies could hire the inspector of their choice, a practice that created conflicts of interest. Some builders even set up their own inspection companies so they could effectively inspect themselves. In 2019, the government changed the system, saying it had led to “illegal commercial ties” between builders and inspectors.
The Coskuns hired Yetkin Yapi Denetim. A Times review of more than 120 inspection reports raised questions about how rigorously the company had monitored construction on Renaissance.
Ilkay Teltik, a member of the Istanbul Chamber of Construction Engineers who reviewed the documents, described them as “perfunctory and sloppy,” with missing dates and other key details, such as the exact locations that concrete samples were taken from.
“The municipality should have checked these and not accepted them,” she said.
More than 100 of the reports were signed by one partner, Mehmet Hasim Eraslan, and government records listed him among the building’s inspectors.
When initially reached by phone, Mr. Eraslan said he had not heard of Renaissance before he saw it on the news after the collapse. “We were not its inspectors,” he said. He did not respond to later requests for more information.
After Renaissance opened, residents occasionally felt seismic activity.
Mr. Sahin, the dentist whose parents lived there, said he was unsettled by how much the building swayed during a smaller quake in 2019. But his mother told him it had a “rail system,” a moving foundation designed to absorb seismic shock, and could withstand even 9 magnitude quakes. “She told me not to worry because there was a rail system and that was how they had marketed it,” he said.
Renaissance did not have a rail system, even if some residents believed it did.
Ms. Keskin said that at one point, a large crack had appeared in her neighbor’s wall. She asked Yalcin Coskun, one of contractors, about it during a meeting with other apartment owners, she said, recalling that he had said the building had strong materials that could withstand a 9 magnitude quake.
She came away with the message: “It is earthquake proof. Feel comfortable.” When asked where the other apartment owners are now, Ms. Keskin replied: “They are all dead.”
“I was expecting to die. I never thought I would live.”
Selma Keskin, resident on the 3rd floor
When her apartment shook, Ms. Keskin lay down on the floor. Everything went dark. She felt like she was spinning as she sank into the bowels of the building, landing on her back with a weight pinning her down. She moved her arms and head to make sure she was alive but had no idea where she was or if anybody would find her.
Most residents experienced two powerful blows, first when they were thrown against the wall as the building toppled, then when it hit the earth. For many, those forces meant instant death.
Reyhan Dinler, a housewife, and her sister had been visiting Ms. Dinler’s daughter and grandson when the quake hit. She recalled furniture sliding around and a crack stretching across the room before she fainted. She woke up, stuck in the rubble, and heard voices, so she screamed and two men pulled her out. They took her to the gas station, where other survivors were gathering, many wearing just pajamas in the rain and near-freezing temperature.
The crowd grew as relatives arrived to search for loved ones. A truck driver abandoned his truck in Ukraine to hitchhike home to look for his daughter. An engineer sketched the plan of his brother’s apartment and set off across the rubble to look for him.
Mr. Sahin, the dentist, arrived to find an apocalyptic scene. There were no soldiers, police or rescue teams, so neighbors were scrambling over the building’s carcass, pulling out survivors and bodies. Fires broke out in the rubble, filling the air with acrid smoke, and potentially burning or suffocating people still trapped below.
“There was no one to help,” he said. “You had to do whatever you could on your own.” He climbed over the debris to where he thought his parents’ apartment was and screamed their names. They didn’t respond, though others did. “There were voices coming from below,” he said. “But there was nothing we could do.”
In the months since the earthquake, Turkish prosecutors have been investigating Renaissance over the collapse and deaths. Two people have been arrested.
Yasar Coskun, the contractor, was handcuffed at the airport while trying to fly to Montenegro. A son of a partner at the inspection company was also detained in the investigation, although there are no indications he worked at Renaissance. No one else from the inspection company has been arrested.
Prosecutors have issued warrants for at least two other people: a woman who surveyed the land and Yalcin Coskun, the other contractor, who does business in Montenegro. The Turkish authorities are seeking his extradition.
Within a few weeks, the rubble was cleared away, leaving the concrete foundation as the only trace of Renaissance.
So far, prosecutors believe at least 300 people were killed in the collapse, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation. But the toll is probably significantly higher. Dozens of residents are still missing, either because they were buried before being identified or their remains were accidentally hauled away with the rubble.
For the survivors and relatives of the dead and missing, the months since have been an agonizing mix of grief, anger and uncertainty. Some lost limbs or are healing from deep wounds. Many, suddenly without homes or belongings, have crammed into relatives’ apartments as they cope with shock and depression. Still others have filed DNA samples with the government, hoping to be matched with their unidentified loved-ones’ remains.
Some survivors and relatives have discussed suing the contractor, but progress is slow. They are scattered around the country, struggling to get through their days.
Mr. Sahin, the dentist, stayed near the ruins for 18 days, waiting for news of his parents. He slept in his car, warmed himself near wood fires and pondered how swiftly his family had been torn apart. “We spent so much money to buy this house and it turned into a graveyard,” he said.
In the three months since the quake, he has found his mother’s body but not his father’s. He takes medication, struggles to sleep and feels guilty, as if he abandoned his parents. “I go to work, keeping myself busy with my patients, but it is difficult,” he said. “I try to hold onto life.”
Ms. Dinler, the housewife, maintains her routine while mourning the loss of her sister, daughter, son-in-law and grandson. Her faith gives her solace. “There is not one day that I don't cry,” she said. “What keeps me going is that they are martyrs and we will meet in heaven one day.”
Still stuck in the rubble as the long hours passed, Ms. Keskin, the lawyer, meditated, felt pain, went numb, imagined flying to kiss her son goodbye and shivered so much from the cold that she fell asleep, she said. She hit a lamp with stones to make noise and thought she smelled flowers and natural gas. Then, suddenly, someone called her name.
A rescue team from Hungary pulled her out more than 50 hours after the quake. She apologized for how she looked and smelled and thanked each of her rescuers before going to a hospital. Now, she feels like a new person while battling survivor’s guilt and rage at the men who built Renaissance.
“If what’s been said is true, it is really an engineering mistake,” she said. “I don’t have the heart to say it, but it is murder.” As she has driven through the earthquake zone in recent weeks, she has taken notice of the many buildings that did not collapse.
“That means that if you do it right,” she said, “no one will die.”
Notes: The 3-D model in the forensic analysis is based on the building drawings examined by The New York Times. The Times did not have access to “as-built” plans and structural drawings, which may contain later modifications. A comprehensive simulation needed to pinpoint the precise sequence of the collapse was not available. The security camera footage from the gas station next to Renaissance had incorrect timestamps because of an internal system error. The initial earthquake hit southern Turkey at 4:17 a.m. local time.
Sources for forensic analysis of the building collapse: Baris Erkus, structural engineer based in Istanbul; David Sommer, structural engineer and associate principal at Degenkolb Engineers; Jim Malley, structural engineer and senior principal at Degenkolb Engineers; Osman E. Ozbulut, associate professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Virginia; Mustafa Mahamid, a researcher at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, and a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers; Seref Polat, consulting engineer based in Istanbul; Attila Lazslo Joo, associate professor of structural engineering, Budapest University of Technology and Economics; Roland Farkas, Hungarian firefighter with Hungary’s search and rescue team (HUNOR); Bora Gencturk, structural engineer and associate professor at the University of Southern California; Revathy M. Parameswaran, research associate, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and multi-institutional team; Ozgur Kozaci, geologist; Tamer Duman, geology engineer; Christine Goulet, director of the Earthquake Science Center at the U.S. Geological Survey.
Ben Hubbard, Anjali Singhvi, Beril Eski and Safak Timur reported from Antakya, Turkey; James Glanz and Mika Gröndahl from New York; and Elif Ince from Istanbul. Produced by K.K. Rebecca Lai, Malika Khurana and Helmuth Rosales. Reporting contributed by Rebecca Ruiz, Cora Engelbrecht and Nimet Kirac in Antakya, Turkey; Christopher Schuetze in Berlin.parking garageground floor