People Should Learn Lessons of Disasters

This day 55 years ago the most tragic earthquakes over the whole history of mankind shook the Soviet republic of Turkmenistan
On the night of October 6, 1948, earth tremors absolutely destroyed the city of Ashkhabad, the capital of the Soviet republic of Turkmenistan. This is sad that the lesson of the disastrous catastrophe was not learnt.

The number of people killed as a result of the earthquake was extremely huge. The exact number of victims has not been estimated until today. In the Soviet era, the statistics named the figure of 25-30 thousand people. Incumbent Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov lost his mother and two brothers during the earthquake. Following the president, the present-day authorities of the republic insist that the disaster claimed the lives of 174 thousand people. Some researchers investigating the Ashkhabad catastrophe think that 60-70 thousand people fell victims to the earthquake in 1948.

The huge number of victims of the earthquake measuring 9-10 on the Richter scale is first of all explained with the poor condition of apartment houses. Majority of citizens in Ashkhabad were living in pise one-storey buildings or two-storied hostels in poor condition that could not stand earthquakes.

The first earth tremors started late at light when majority of the city population were asleep. Those few people who were outside late at night later told about some increasing noise going from under the surface followed by a strong shock.

One of the people who were lucky to survive in the earthquake later told: "I felt terrible rumbling in the middle of the night, then came thunder and cracks; the earth was trembling and heaving. Being still half-asleep I decided I was once again dreaming of war and bombing. But the catastrophe was in fact even scarier than bombing. When I realized the fact I rushed out of the house and heard the building collapse behind me. I was standing in puffs of dust. The swaying trees and collapsing buildings were lit with some strange yellowish color. Then suddenly darkness fell upon the whole of the place; I heard cries and weeping from all sides; purple fires were breaking out here and there, and the earth was still shivering. There were bricks and entire walls collapsing everywhere. Together with some people we dug out a pillow and I saw my mom's face under the pillow. She was alive, but severely wounded and had a choke. A neighbor ran up to us and helped us to take mom out."

The people experienced another earth shock at 6 a.m. Even though it was weaker than that we had had at night, it finished the liquidation of the city. Thousands of people, very many children among them, were buried under the wreckage.

Later, General Petrov, the commander of the Turkestan military circuit told that wreckage of that enormous scale equaled to the war devastation that might be caused by 500 heavy bombers bombing the place 24 hours a day within half a year. After the disaster, only the buildings of the State Bank and the Turkmenistan Communist Party Central Committee remained safe because the constructions were earthquake-proof. A monument to Lenin somehow managed to escape severe destruction as well.

That was mostly thanks to efforts of General Petrov that the place was not attacked by plunderers. The general ordered to introduce troops into the city which was a timely measure. Criminals from a destroyed prison seized police uniform and guns and attempted to attack the State Bank. Plundering of the republican bank was avoided only thanks to the troops. Unfortunately, the general's son was killed by bandits while patrolling the city.

Even though the troops were introduced in the city, there were not enough soldiers to stop plundering and locals had to make up independent groups to protect themselves and the places where they used to live from plundering. There were no police patrols in the first hours after the earthquake.

Moscow learnt about the catastrophe in nine hours only. The republic of Turkmenistan was given immediate aid, but the central Soviet press reported no details about the actual scale of the disaster. The authorities knew the exact number of victims, but the Stalin administration simply did not like to report that disasters might ruin entire cities.

It should be mentioned here that authorities, the Soviet authorities as well as the republican ones, were partially responsible for the losses that people suffered during the earthquake. Certainly, people had no devices capable of warning about an approaching disaster in that post-war time. That may sound strange but seismologists did not study the danger of earthquakes in that region as they considered the danger insignificant. A commission created to look into the tragedy reached the following conclusion: "The buildings were mostly destroyed because of poor observation of the seismic regulations. If the regulations were observed the scale of the destruction could have been smaller. Majority of buildings revealed poor quality of the construction works. It seems there has been no control established over building of the houses."

That sounded strange when the same conclusions were made when special commissions were created later to look into earthquakes in Tashkent in 1966, in Armenia in 1988 and in Neftegorsk (Sakhalin) in 1995 when the entire city was destroyed. The tragedy that the city Ashkhabad experienced in 1948 taught people of the country not a single lesson.

Author`s name Michael Simpson