The death toll in a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in eastern Turkey climbed to 279 as rescue workers searched for hundreds of people trapped under rubble in the country’s worst natural disaster since 1999.
At least 2,262 buildings collapsed in the quake that struck a region near the Iranian border yesterday, about 1,300 kilometers (700 miles) east of Istanbul, the government said. As many as 1,000 people may have died, officials said. Aftershocks as high as magnitude 6 rattled the area as staff at damaged hospitals treated the injured and the homeless sought shelter in tents as the temperature approached freezing.
“Tens of people are being constantly removed from the rubble, we don’t know what condition they are in,” said Atilla Bakir, after his house in Ercis, the worst-hit town, sustained cracks. He said the central part of Ercis was destroyed and there was a shortage of tents. “We slept in our cars last night because we are scared of another earthquake,” he said.
In Van, an impoverished city of 1 million people on a lake and surrounded by mountains, television stations showed a collapsed apartment building where rescue workers were using a crane and drills to reach survivors. The prime minister’s office said 1,300 people have been hurt.
At least 169 of the dead were in Ercis, on the other side of Lake Van, where 90 buildings collapsed, including a school dormitory. As many as 4,000 homes in the area may be damaged. Sections of hospital buildings weakened by the shaking were closed as a precaution, Health Minister Recep Akdag told reporters in Van.
Officials from the Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute in Istanbul said 500 to 1,000 people may have died. The quake struck at 1:41 p.m. local time, followed by more than 250 aftershocks, Kandilli said on its website. The temblor, 5 kilometers below the surface, was the province’s biggest since 1976 and the country’s most severe since a 1999 quake east of Istanbul killed more than 17,000. A quake measuring 6.1 killed more than 40 people in Elazig, west of Van in March last year.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who flew to the region late yesterday, said all efforts would be made in the search for survivors and everyone who needs shelter and food will get them.
“We are not going to leave people to their own devices in the winter cold,” said Erdogan, who was accompanied by six ministers. He warned people not to re-enter damaged buildings.
Temperature Near Freezing
About 7,000 tents have been distributed throughout the province, Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said. “Many more tents, heaters and blankets, especially since the weather will get colder, are on their way here,” he said. “There will be no shortages.”
Temperatures in the region are forecast to drop as low as minus 2 degrees Celsius (28 degrees Fahrenheit) and it is likely to snow in two days, Kursat Aydin of the Turkish State Meteorological Service in Ankara said in a telephone interview.
Tents are in short supply and the government must send more, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said in televised comments from Van.
About 150 prisoners escaped from Van’s main jail through a destroyed wall, the Dogan news agency reported. About 50 of the escapees surrendered to authorities, saying they fled in panic during the earthquake, it said.
“Normally quakes happen 30 to 40 kilometers deep,” Mustafa Erdik, head of the Kandilli observatory, said in televised comments. “This is less than 10 kilometers. Therefore, there will be more damage.”
The temblor struck towns and villages across the province, which lies just south of Mount Ararat, the highest mountain in Turkey at 5,137 meters (16,854 feet), where the Old Testament says Noah’s Ark came to rest.
More than 3,750 rescue workers were in Van or heading there from about 48 provinces, the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency said in a statement. Ambulances, generators and search dogs were also arriving, it said.
President Barack Obama issued a statement of condolences, saying Americans stand “shoulder to shoulder with our Turkish ally at this difficult time and are ready to assist,” according to an e-mailed statement from the White House.
Greek Foreign Minister Stavros Lambrinidis spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, and assured him the country was prepared to assist its neighbor, the ministry in Athens said in an e-mailed statement. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization also said in an e-mail that it is “ready to assist our ally Turkey.”
Other countries that offered help include Israel, the U.K., Germany, Poland, Hungary and Switzerland. Turkey is capable of handling the emergency and has so far only accepted offers of assistance from Iran, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria, Erdogan said.
So far, 8,964 tents, 25,229 blankets, 4,132 heaters and food has been shipped to the region, the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency said.