ERCIS, Turkey | Mon Oct 24, 2011 8:13am EDT
(Reuters) – Rescuers clawed through rubble on Monday to free people trapped by a powerful earthquake that killed at least 264 people and wounded more than 1,000 in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey.
Hundreds more were feared dead, as Turkey’s most powerful quake in a decade toppled remote villages of mud brick houses.
As some desperate survivors cried for help from beneath mounds of smashed concrete and twisted metal, earthmoving machines and soldiers joined the search after Sunday’s 7.2 magnitude quake struck the city of Van and the town of Ercis, some 100 km (60 miles) to the north.
“Be patient, be patient,” rescuers told a whimpering boy, pinned under a concrete slab with the lifeless hand of an adult, with a wedding ring, visible just in front of his face.
A Reuters photographer saw a woman and her daughter being freed from beneath a concrete slab in the wreckage of a building that had once been six stories tall.
“I’m here, I’m here,” the woman, named Fidan, called out in a hoarse voice. Talking to her regularly while working for more than two hours to find a way through, rescuers cut through the slab, first sighting the daughter’s foot, before freeing them.
Standing by a wrecked four-storey building one woman told a rescue worker she had spoken to her friend, Hatice Hasimoglu,on her mobile phone six hours after the quake trapped her inside.
“She’s my friend and she called me to say that she’s alive and she’s stuck in the rubble near the stairs of the building,” said her friend, a fellow teacher. “She told me she was wearing red pajamas,” she said, standing with distraught relatives begging the rescue workers to hurry.
In Van, an ancient city of one million on a lake ringed by snow-capped mountains, cranes shifted rubble from a collapsed six-storey apartment block where 70 people were feared trapped.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan flew swiftly to Van to assess the scale of the disaster in a quake-prone area that is a hotbed of activity for Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants.
Erdogan said he feared for the fate of villages which rescue teams had yet to reach. “Because the buildings are made of mud brick, they are more vulnerable to quakes. I must say that almost all buildings in such villages are destroyed,” he told an overnight news conference in Van.
NTV broadcaster quoted Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin as saying the death toll had reached 264. Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay, speaking in Van, said more than 1,300 were injured. The interior minister said hundreds more were unaccounted for, many believed buried under rubble.
Newspapers said trauma had been piled on trauma in the southeast, where a PKK attack killed 24 Turkish soldiers in Hakkari, south of Van, last week. “Homeland of Pain. Yesterday terrorism, today earthquake,” said Radikal newspaper.
Erdogan earlier flew by helicopter to Ercis, a town of 100,000 that was harder hit than Van, with 55 buildings flattened, including a student dormitory. “We don’t know how many people are in the ruins of collapsed buildings,” he said.
At one crumpled four-storey building in Ercis, firemen from the major southeastern city of Diyarbakir tried to reach four missing children. Aid workers carried two black body bags, one apparently containing a child, to an ambulance. An old woman wrapped in a headscarf walked alongside sobbing.
A distressed man paced back and forth before running toward the rescue workers on top of the rubble. “That’s my nephew’s house,” he sobbed as workers tried to hold him back.
A group of women, some with faces covered by headscarves, wept as they looked on under a chilly blue sky.
COLD NIGHT IN OPEN
Nearby, aid teams handed out parcels of bread and food, while people wrapped in blankets huddled around open fires after spending a cold night on the streets.
Rescue efforts were hampered by power outages after the quake toppled electricity cables to towns and villages across much of the barren Anatolian steppe near the Iranian border. It also damaged the main Van-Ercis road, CNN Turk reported.
More than 200 aftershocks have jolted the region since the quake struck for around 25 seconds at 1041 GMT (6:41 a.m. EDT) on Sunday.
“I just felt the whole earth moving and I was petrified. It went on for ages. And the noise, you could hear this loud, loud noise,” said Hakan Demirtas, 32, a builder who was working on construction site in Van at the time.
“My house is ruined,” he said, sitting on a low wall after spending the night in the open. “I am still afraid, I’m in shock. I have no future, there is nothing I can do.”
The Red Crescent said about 100 experts had reached the earthquake zone to coordinate rescue and relief operations. Some 5,000 tents and 11,000 blankets, stoves and food were being distributed and mobile kitchens were set up to feed those made homeless. Sniffer dogs had joined the quest for survivors.
At Van airport, a Turkish Airlines cargo plane unloaded aid materials onto waiting military vehicles for distribution.
Workers set up a tent city in the Ercis sports stadium, as ambulances, sirens wailing, ferried the injured to hospital.
Dogan news agency reported that 24 people were pulled from the rubble alive in the two hours after midnight.
Erdogan later returned to Ankara for a cabinet meeting to discuss the response to the disaster. He said Turkey could cope by itself, but thanked nations offering help, including Armenia and Israel, which both have strained relations with Ankara.
U.N Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was deeply saddened by the loss of life and devastation. “He expresses his heartfelt sympathies to the government and people of Turkey at this time of loss and suffering,” a U.N. statement said.
Major geological fault lines cross Turkey, where small tremors occur almost daily. Two large quakes in 1999 killed more than 20,000 people in the northwest.
The quake had no impact on Turkish financial markets as they opened on Monday. Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek said Van benefit from tax exemptions.
In Van, construction worker Sulhattin Secen, 27, said he had first mistaken the quake’s rumble for a car crash.
“Then the ground beneath me started moving up and down as if I was standing in water. May God help us. It’s like life has stopped. What are people going to do?”