This Lakewood woman survived and helped with recovery after a powerful earthquake in Turkey in 1999. Now, she’s helping again from afar

Courtesy of Behan Maybach
Beyhan Maybach in 1999 during a break while volunteering after the earthquake that struck near Izmit.

Beyhan Maybach remembers being thrown from her bed in her parents' home in Istanbul in the early morning hours on Aug. 17, 1999. An earthquake had hit just outside the city of Izmit, an hour’s drive southeast of Turkey’s capital. While Istanbul was relatively unscathed, the magnitude 7.6 quake left nearly 18,000 people dead and many more injured. 

Maybach, a Turkish native who now lives in Lakewood, watched the immediate aftermath of the ‘99 quake on TV at her family’s home in Istanbul and then made a decision. She was in her early 20s at the time and had extensive mountaineering experience. 

“I said to my family, ‘I’m gonna get my backpack and go to the site.’” 

Maybach went to the airport where she connected with a Belgium army rescue team and became their guide and interpreter in the search and rescue effort. She worked as a volunteer, rescuing people and removing bodies from the rubble. She also helped establish a temporary dialysis center for a hospital that had collapsed. 

Those memories came rushing back when Maybach got word of last week’s powerful earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.

“It's a life-changing experience,” she said. “And anybody who's been in a disaster knows this either as a helper or as a person who went through it.”

Courtesy of Beyhan Maybach
Beyhan Maybach helping with supplies following the 1999 earthquake just outside the city of Izmit, Turkey.

Maybach said while the ‘99 earthquake was horrific, it doesn’t compare to the level of destruction and misery that has resulted from this month’s earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, which struck in quick succession, one a 7.8-magnitude quake and another hours later, at magnitude 7.5. More than 39,000 people died in a region home to 12 million people. 

Maybach said the other compounding factor is that the earthquakes struck in the winter. Cold weather hampered efforts to save those trapped in the rubble and added to the challenges for survivors.

Two of Maybach’s nephews have followed in her footsteps. Both have helped out with relief efforts in areas hit by the recent quakes. One, a 19-year-old, is now working as a translator at a field hospital. 

Turkey is no stranger to earthquakes. The country sits at the intersection of two major tectonic plates and stories of destruction from earthquakes date back thousands of years. A 7.8-magnitude quake hit the eastern part of the country in 1939. More than 30,000 people died. Smaller earthquakes are common and Maybach said people are used to tremors. 

While Maybach can’t be on the ground in Turkey this time, she is doing what she can from Colorado. She’s working with the Turkish American Cultural Society of Colorado, which has been collecting tents, sleeping bags and winter clothes and has already filled a trailer of supplies that will be airlifted to Turkey. 

Maybach is also helping the group organize a candlelight vigil at Denver’s Washington Park this Friday at 6 p.m. to honor the victims of the earthquakes. Maybach said she hopes people who live near the Denver area will join in the vigil to show their solidarity to those whose lives have been upended in Turkey and Syria.

She said seeing the destruction has been painful and her past experience in 1999 only increases her desire to make a difference. One memory from that time two decades ago stands out in her mind. 

“I remember walking into a building with my rescue group and seeing a person crushed on their bed,” Maybach said. “There was a piece of paper there, and I grabbed it. I'm assuming it was handwritten by this person, and it was a poem about love. And I kind of sat there and read it to my rescue group. And at [that] moment, I realized there is nothing more important than love in this world. And being able to work as a group based on love and help.”