AP Photo/Evrim Aydin, Anatolia
Rescuers search for survivors in the rubble of a collapsed hotel in Van, eastern Turkey, late Wednesday.
By Jim Maceda, NBC News Correspondent
LONDON – The pictures and video of the collapsed Bamyan Hotel in Van, Turkey, where at least eight were killed overnight by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake, were particularly eerie for me.
The victims were mostly the rescuers and journalists covering the aftermath of a previous, deadlier 7.2 magnitude quake that struck on Oct. 23 dozens of miles away. Worse – they had been told they’d be safe there.
As sniffer dogs and frantic first responders found and dug out at least 26 survivors – one died later in the hospital – I flashed back to September, 1985.
We were a group of about a dozen NBC News personnel who had just arrived in Mexico City to cover the destruction left by a massive 8.1 earthquake. Hundreds of buildings had collapsed, and thousands of people were killed. But we felt relatively secure on the 14th floor of the five-Star Marriott Hotel. We’d been assured that the building was “earthquake proof” and had only suffered “minor damage.”
And that’s just what the Bamyan Hotel staff had said to journalists after Turkey’s initial Oct. 23 quake that toppled at least 2,000 buildings and killed some 600 people.
“There’s no structural damage here,” one Turkish journalist said he had been told.
It sounded so familiar.
Ali Ihsan Ozturk / Andolu Agency via EPA
Rescue workers try to salvage people from a collapsed building after an earthquake in Van, eastern of Turkey, on Thursday. Click on the photo to see a complete slideshow.
Minutes into our first meeting to talk about the next day’s coverage, the floor started to shake. We all fell silent. Looking up, a hanging lamp banged against the ceiling as it swayed in 180-degree arcs. Someone said, “Uh oh.” Someone else stifled a scream. Then we felt the whole building begin to sway. It didn’t feel like it would stop. I didn’t believe it would stop. It was like a huge rollercoaster you have lost trust in. We were going to die.
But it did stop – and then began to sway backwards. More screams. And then sounds I can still hear – tons of screeching metal. And then more screams.
I ran – we ran – down what seemed like endless flights of stairs, yelling as much to myself as to the others, “Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic!!”
Amazingly, we got to what we thought was the ground floor and burst through the door. But it wasn’t the ground floor – we had rushed out onto the second-floor mezzanine garden. It was nighttime, but, silhouetted against the sky, I could see the outline of the hotel tower as it continued swaying.
More screeching metal. And then the realization came that we had to go back into the hotel, find the stairs in the dark, and get out to the street.
Which, with our hearts in our mouths, we did.
The Marriott survived that 7.8 aftershock. The staff who had said it was safe were – just barely – correct.
But none of us that September night dared go back into the building to grab any personal belongings.
This was years before it became standard for news teams to travel with tents, flashlights, water bottles and ponchos when covering an earthquake story – especially in a large metropolis like Mexico City. We were hardly prepared at all.
Hours later, and still very shaken, we checked into the Camino Real. It had one major thing going for it – it was only two or three stories tall.
Looking at the images of devastation in Van, it was obvious that the standards used in building the Mexico City Marriott were not applied. The Bamyan didn’t stand a chance against the 5.7 aftershock. Turkish government officials have complained for years about the rickety state of Turkey’s hotels and other buildings. But builders still cut corners. Some reporters staying at the Bamyan said they’d seen “small cracks” after October’s massive quake.
“I could easily put my hand through the cracks in the walls,” laughed NBC News cameraman Dave Moodie in the typical gallows style of a hardened journalist. Moodie had stayed at the Bamyan for a week while covering the worst-hit town, Ercis.
It is, of course, no laughing matter. He was shocked to see the hotel on TV this morning, flattened like a pancake.
And I will never forget those minutes in that Mexico Marriott – to this day I HATE to stay in any hotel room above the second floor.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London.