collapsed building

Parents seek justice for children crushed in collapsed hotel during Turkish earthquake

In the year following catastrophic earthquakes in Turkey, the quest for accountability has been elusive. But a group of parents whose children died in a hotel collapse have brought a landmark criminal case to court.

The World

Murat Aktuğralı meets with other grieving parents — to discuss their legal case — in a small classroom next to the volleyball court where his son Aras used to play.

In early February of last year, boys’ and girls’ volleyball teams from the town of Famagusta traveled to the eastern Turkish city of Adiyaman for a volleyball tournament.

They all stayed at the Isias Hotel, known to be one of the nicest places to stay in Adiyaman, with 10 floors and good online reviews. The kids, all between the ages of 11 and 14, took rooms together in the hotel.

On Feb. 6, 2023, at 4:17 a.m., a massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake ripped across southern Turkey. A second 7.5-magnitude earthquake followed several hours later. More than 59,000 people were killed in the destruction, both in Turkey and northern Syria.

The Grand Isias Hotel collapsed in the quake, killing 72 people altogether, including 24 volleyball players, nine teachers and parents, and a group of 40 tour guides.

parents in a gym
Murat Aktuğralı and Ruşen Karakaya stand in the gym where their children played volleyball together in Famagusta, northern Cyprus. Twenty-four children and several parent- and teacher-chaperones were killed in the collapse of the Isias Hotel in Adiyaman during the earthquakes on Feb. 6, 2023. Grieving parents have established a Champion Angels Association to help pursue a legal case against the hotel’s owners.Durrie Bouscaren/The World 

Now, Aktuğralı and other parents whose children died in the hotel collapse are helping to bring a landmark criminal case to court against the hotel owners and people involved with the construction.

“In my mind, justice is never possible. We will never get our kids back. But by the result of this trial, we hope it will be a good example for the future,” Aktuğralı said. “This punishment will show those people, those crooks, that they will be punished if they do something wrong.”

Early on, Turkish authorities took hotel owner Ahmet Bozkurt into custody, alongside his two sons and business partners.

Eleven defendants are accused of “conscious negligence” while overseeing the hotel’s construction. The indictment says the building was illegally converted from a residence into a hotel in 2001 and that the hotel had illegally erected an additional floor, The Guardian reported.

family portrait
A portrait of the Aktuğralı family. Aras is second from the right.Courtesy of the Aktuğralı family

Hasan Esendağlı, who is part of the legal team on behalf of the parents, said that they are making the argument that the hotel wasn’t built safely, especially for an area with a known earthquake risk.

“We’re trying to figure out who is responsible,” Esendağlı said. “Whether it was engineers who took part in the construction, the architect, or the municipality who gave permission.”

In the first hearing of the trial on Jan. 2, the hotel owner said he believed his hotel was the strongest building in the area. He argued that his hotel was built to code but that in an earthquake of this magnitude, it was inevitable that some buildings would fall.

He said that he, too, was grieving the deaths of his guests.

In Famagusta, the parents said that the hotel’s owners have never contacted them, even to give condolences.

Hasan Esendağlı, who is part of the legal team on behalf of the parents, said that they are making the argument that the hotel wasn’t built safely, especially for an area with a known earthquake risk.Durrie Bouscaren/The World 

Aktuğralı said that on the night of the earthquake, he ran to the door to try and reach the kids — but couldn’t open it to get into the hallway. So, he took cover between the beds in the room.

“I was talking to the walls, praying that the hotel would withstand the shaking, and all of a sudden, it was like an atomic boom.”

The president of northern Cyprus arranged a rescue team, which flew to Adiyaman that day with a group of parents, hoping to find the kids alive under the rubble. But their rooms had completely collapsed.

“It was like a mountain of sand. Our kids and the parents and their teachers, they didn’t have any chance to survive.”

Ruşen Karakaya is the mother of Selin, a 14-year-old player on the girl’s team.

a mom and daughter
Selin Karakaya, left, who died in the hotel collapse, and her mother Ruşen Karakaya.Courtesy of Ruşen Karakaya

Once in a while, Karakaya drives to Selin’s high school — to sit in the parking lot where she used to pick her up.

Karakaya is part of the lawsuit that the children’s parents have brought forward.

“It’s not fair. An earthquake didn’t kill our kids. The building killed them,” she said. “We’re talking about murderers here. That’s why we are right now fighting for justice.”

The next hearing for the case is set for April 26.

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