Don's diary

September 3, 1999


Arrive at crowded Istanbul airport to attend a week-long theoretical physics conference at Bogazici (Bosphorus) University.


Awakened by what I take to be a mechanical excavator outside the window. Rather strange for 3am. Even stranger as am on the fifth floor. And why is the bed moving? Slowly realise that this must be my first earthquake. Groups of colleagues in varying states of undress are gathered at a safe distance from the building. Epicentre seems to have been at Izmit about 90 kilometres away. Spend rest of the night outside.

Much discussion as to whether the conference will continue or not, but in the morning we all set off for the university as planned.

We're now aware that this was a fairly major earthquake. A distinguished senior mathematician from Poland confesses that he usually writes his talks at 24 hours' notice and that because of the earthquake he will have to repeat an old talk. I subsequently discover that he went to the lavatory at 3am and on lowering his posterior to the seat was dismayed to find the seat rising up to meet it.


Scale of the disaster is becoming apparent. It's clear there have been victims but the number is unknown. We hold a minute's silence. The sessions continue with a feeling of quiet apprehension.


I run to the waiting coach through the hotel's plate glass door, unfortunately closed at the time. Spend the next three hours on the bed holding an ice-pack to a protuberance on my forehead.

Afternoon: conference boat trip and a chance to talk to colleagues. Apparently with this type of earthquake the aftershock can be of comparable magnitude - the original tremor was announced to be 6.8 on the Richter scale but then re-evaluated at 7.4. An aftershock was expected that night. Most of the delegates spend the night outside again, and there was indeed a 5.4 tremor.


Try to reconfirm return ticket. Turkish Airlines informs me that there is a problem - all flights out of Istanbul are full. After some frantic phone calls I get a confirmed seat.


Colleagues quietly exchange disaster stories at breakfast. Have you heard that there is typhus and cholera leaking into the water supplies? Is it safe to shower or should we use mineral water for that too? The scenario is becoming ever more reminiscent of Death in Venice.

In my closing speech I look forward to further meetings but get the impression the overwhelming feeling is relief that soon we will all be back in our earthquake-free environments.


On the drive to the airport through Istanbul the route is lined with tents. In retrospect, I was very lucky, having escaped almost intact - apart from a large bruise on my forehead that will undoubtedly make me a local hero at the Open University.

Allan Solomon is professor of mathematical physics at the Open University.

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