Quake death toll reaches 272 in Turkey

October 24, 2011

The Associated Press

People rescue two women trapped under debris in Van eastern Turkey after a power

ERCIS, Turkey — Five people were pulled out alive Monday from the rubble in eastern Turkey after a 7.2-magnitude quake leveled buildings and killed some 272 people. Four of them were rescued after one managed to call for help with his cell phone.

Dozens of people were trapped in mounds of concrete, twisted steel and construction debris after hundreds of buildings in two cities and mud-brick homes in nearby villages pancaked or partially collapsed in Sunday's earthquake.

Worst-hit was Ercis — an eastern city of 75,000 close to the Iranian border that lies in one of Turkey's most earthquake-prone zones — where about 80 multistory buildings collapsed.

Yalcin Akay was dug out from a collapsed six-story building with a leg injury after he called a police emergency line on his phone and described his location, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported. Three others, including two children, were also rescued from the same building in Ercis 20 hours after the quake struck, officials said.

Later, a 21-year-old woman, Tugba Altinkaynak, was rescued after being trapped beneath rubble for some 27-hours. There was no immediate information on her condition. Her father, Nevzat, said she was at a family lunch with 12 other relatives when the temblor hit. Four of them were pulled out alive earlier.

As over 200 aftershocks rocked the area, rescuers searched mounds of debris for the missing and tearful families members waited anxiously nearby. Cranes and other heavy equipment lifted slabs of concrete, allowing residents to dig for the missing with shovels. Generator-powered floodlights ran all night so the rescues could continue.

Aid groups scrambled to set up tents, field hospitals and kitchens to help the thousands left homeless or too afraid to re-enter their homes. Many exhausted residents spent the night outside, lighting fires to keep warm.

"We stayed outdoors all night, I could not sleep at all, my children, especially the little one, was terrified," said Serpil Bilici of her six-year-old daughter, Rabia. "I grabbed her and rushed out when the quake hit, we were all screaming."

The bustling, larger city of Van, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Ercis, also sustained substantial damage, but Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin said search efforts there were winding down.

Sahin expected the death toll in Ercis to rise, but not as much as initially feared. He told reporters rescue teams were searching for survivors in the ruins of 47 buildings where dozens could be trapped, including a cafe.

"There could be around 100 people (in the rubble)," Sahin said. "But we are not talking about thousands."

Authorities said the earthquake has left 272 dead and some 1,100 injured. Ten of the victims were students learning about the Quran at a religious school that collapsed.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who inspected the area late Sunday, said "close to all" the mud-brick homes in surrounding villages had collapsed in the temblor that also rattled parts of Iran and Armenia.

In Ercis, a team specializing in mine disaster rescues combed through what once was a student dormitory.

"Four or five (apartments) have been leveled," team member Mustafa Bilgin said. "University students are said to be living here. We don't know how many of them are still inside."

Dozens of people huddled around the building, silently watching the rescue work. A woman who lost her parents sat on the ground sobbing near another crumpled building.

The terrifying moments of the powerful temblor still haunted many.

"I was in the street and saw the buildings sway," Hasan Ceylan, 48, surveying the wreckage of his three businesses, including a grocery store and a veterinary clinic.

Abubekir Acar, 42, was sipping tea with friends as the quake leveled a nearby coffee house.

"We did not understand what was going on, the buildings around us, the coffee house all went down so quickly," he said. "For a while, we could not see anything — everywhere was covered in dust. Then, we heard screams and pulled out anyone we could reach."

More than 2,000 teams with a dozen sniffer dogs were involved in search-and-rescue and aid efforts.

Several countries offered assistance but Erdogan said Turkey was able to cope for the time being. Azerbaijan, Iran and Bulgaria still sent aid, he said.

Among those offering help were Israel, Greece and Armenia. The offer from Israel came despite a rift in relations following a 2010 Israeli navy raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that left nine Turks dead. Greece, which has a deep dispute with Turkey over the divided island of Cyprus, also offered to send a special earthquake rescue team.

Armenian President Serge Sarkisian proposed helping during talks in Moscow with Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev, and the two leaders called their Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, Anatolia reported. Turkey and Armenia have no diplomatic ties due to tensions over the Ottoman-era mass killings of Armenians and the conflict in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Leaders around the world conveyed their condolences and offered assistance.

"We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Turkish ally in this difficult time, and are ready to assist," President Barack Obama said.

Turkey lies in one of the world's most active seismic zones and is crossed by numerous fault lines. In 1999, two earthquakes with a magnitude of more than 7 struck northwestern Turkey, killing about 18,000 people.

Istanbul, the country's largest city with more than 12 million people, lies in northwestern Turkey near a major fault line, and experts say tens of thousands could be killed if a major quake struck there

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