People stand outside a building in Blue Area after the earthquake on Monday. — Photo by Tanveer Shahzad
People stand outside a building in Blue Area after the earthquake on Monday. — Photo by Tanveer Shahzad

ISLAMABAD: Doxiadis Associates, the Greek firm that developed the master plan for the federal capital, knew in 1961 that Rawalpindi and the area now known as Islamabad was prone to frequent earthquakes “of which the epicentres were the Hindu Kush area”.

‘The Anti-Seismic Construction Problem’, Book 54 of the Islamabad Master Plan, details how earthquakes from this area, which is about 200-300 miles from Rawalpindi, occur at a depth between 100 to 150 miles.

Monday’s earthquake, which also originated in the Hindu Kush, was measured to be 125 miles deep.

The anti-seismic code recommended by Doxiadis pointed out that the capital would be built on belts of deposits that dated back to the Cretaceous period.

Master plan from 1961 spelt out measures to mitigate damage from quakes

“Faults of the cretaceous-eocene formations also contribute towards the weakening of the seismic intensity... [resulting] in a high absorption of seismic energy.”

This means that if built properly, most structures in Islamabad should be able to withstand strong quakes that originated in the Hindu Kush region, thanks to the nature of the land the city was built on.

However, it is obvious that subsequent construction did not follow the anti-seismic rules laid down by Doxiadis, especially when it came to high-rise buildings.

Sara Seerat, who works in the Islamabad Stock Exchange (ISE), told Dawn that the whole building swayed due to the intense tremors.

“Initially, people didn’t bother reacting. But as the shocks got stronger, everyone rushed for the stairwell and there was a stampede,” she said.

A lawyer who works in the ISE building told Dawn that recently, the building management had sent a circular regarding a fire drill, but had asked people to refrain from running out during the drill because there was not enough room outside to accommodate all the evacuated persons.

Aqeel Chaudhry, who works at the HBL Building in Blue Area, told Dawn that while his organisation had their own evacuation plan in case of emergencies, the building management did not have any proper SOPs in place for evacuation and their response seemed very erratic.

Mini-stampedes were also reported from other high-rise buildings, such as Abu Dhabi Towers and Khudadad Heights in F-11 and the Al-Mustafa and Park Towers in F-10, which are said to be in dilapidated condition.

The latter are two of the oldest apartment buildings in Islamabad and are located right next to the site of the ill-fated Margalla Towers, which collapsed on Oct 8, 2005.

Zoya Rehman, a resident of Park Towers, which was badly damaged in the quake, described her predicament.

“At first I didn’t notice, but when the building began to sway, I quickly ran downstairs, without taking anything with me. As I came down from the eighth floor, I heard people wailing and praying loudly.”

She described large cracks in the walls of her apartment and said that there were chunks of plaster lying on the ground outside the building as well.

“I heard other families saying that the building might fall the next time something like this happens,” she said, adding that while she had no plans to return to the building, others had also packed their belongings and began to leave by Monday night.

Nearby Al-Mustafa Towers, she said, also seemed very dark and empty on Monday night, with lots of people having already moved out.

“I was having lunch on the second floor when I felt the earthquake. My colleagues and I rushed to the stairs and saw cracks were appearing on the walls of the office,” said an employee of a cellular company. He said that the same building had developed cracks during the 2005 earthquake as well.

Sana Ehsan, a resident of Islamabad, said: “We were at the food court, just in front of Pizza Hut when we felt the quake. People started running in all directions but the staff were all heading to the emergency exit and I followed. It is there that I saw debris falling, enough to create more of a panic.”

However, the Capital Development Authority seems unaware of these problems.

“We have standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place to deal with disasters. We have conducted inspections of all buildings and held several rehearsals,” the CDA spokesperson said.

When asked about Monday’s stampede at the Islamabad Stock Exchange building, among others, he said that CDA had been conducting drills regarding what to do in the case of a disaster.

Building code

CDA’s Mustafain Kazmi told Dawn that after the 2005 earthquake, the authority didn’t allow anyone to build in violation of the building code.

Meanwhile, CDA spokesperson Ramzan Sajid said that before the new building code was enforced in 2007, CDA had conducted an audit of all buildings and suggested several measures for structures that were found unsafe and their owners were asked to submit fitness certificates.

Mr Sajid said that a fresh survey would be conducted in the coming days to pinpoint more unsafe buildings.

However, sources say that a large number of old buildings in the capital are not properly following safety standards.

Rafi Centre, located in Mauve Area, Sector G-7/1, is one such building that is still in use, despite being declared unsafe by the CDA many years ago.

Departmental problems

CDA’s emergency and disaster management directorate was established in 2008, three years after the tragic earthquake of 2005.

This wing is equipped to respond to most disasters, but many of its employees were ‘upgraded’ and have now been posted to other departments.

Even disaster risk-reduction specialists such as master trainer Iqbal Tanoli and Humaduddin have also been transferred to the lucrative enforcement wing.

Chaudhry Yaseen, general secretary of the CDA’s employees’ union, admitted that dozens of technical staff who were supposed to work in the disaster management wing, had been posted to other departments.

“The right man should be appointed at the right place,” he said.

When asked why master trainers were posted to other wings, Mr Sajid told Dawn: “Another individual is training disaster management teams and there are no issues with this department; it is performing excellently.”

Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2015

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