Rescuers battle to find Turkish quake survivors

Reuters , Tuesday 25 Oct 2011

Rescue workers dug deeper into collapsed buildings on Tuesday in a battle against time to find survivors from earthquake in southeast Turkey that killed at least 366 people and made tens of thousands homeless

A man (C) reacts as he holds the body of his daughter, killed in an earthquake, before her burial at a cemetery in Ercis, near the eastern Turkish city of Van, October 24, 2011. .(Photo: Reuters)

As hope of finding people alive under tons of rubble faded with every passing hour, rescuers pulled out more bodies while residents slept around small fires in towns rattled by aftershocks across Van province, near the Iranian border.

Five corpses were carried out in body bags from one crumpled building alone in the hard-hit town of Ercis as bystanders wept. Workers used heavy machinery, jackhammers, shovels, pick axes and bare hands to comb through smashed concrete and steel.

Every so often, exhausted rescuers would shout for silence and generators and diggers would stop, straining to hear voices under the wreckage. Seconds later the drone of the machinery would start again.

"Life has become hell. We are outside, the weather is cold. There are no tents," said Emin Kayram, 53, sitting by a camp fire in the town of Ercis after spending the night with his family of eight in a van parked nearby.

His nephew was trapped in the rubble of a building behind him, where rescue workers had been digging through the night.

"He is 18, a student. He is still stuck in there. This is the third day but you can't lose hope. We have to wait here," he said.

Crowds formed at one demolished building where bystanders said a trapped boy had made contact by mobile phone.

As a rescue team dug at the rubble, one man screamed at the workers: "Where were you last night? I told you last night there were people here."

The Disaster and Emergency Administration said on Tuesday the death toll had risen to 366, with 1,301 people injured. The overnight death toll stood at 279.

The death count is likely to rise further as many people are still missing and 2,262 buildings have collapsed.

Casualties have been mostly in Ercis and the provincial capital Van. Officials are checking outlying areas.

"It was like judgment day," said Mesut Ozan Yilmaz, 18, who survived for 32 hours under the rubble of a tea house where he had been passing time with friends.

Unhurt but lying on a hospital bed under a thick blanket, his face blackened by dust and dirt, Yilmaz gave a chilling account to CNN Turk of how he survived by diving under a table.

"The space we had was so narrow. People were fighting for more space to survive," Yilmaz said. "I rested my head on a dead man's foot. I know I would be dead now if I had let myself go psychologically."

As grieving families prepared to bury their dead, others kept vigil by the mounds of concrete rubble and masonry, praying rescue teams would find missing loved ones alive.

Rescue teams concentrated efforts in Ercis, a town of 100,000 that was worst hit by the 7.2 magnitude tremor.

Residents spent the night outside, fearing to return to their damaged homes.

"We are afraid. Tremors are happening all the time. Pieces of concrete are falling off buildings," said Farzande Dilmac, 70, pointing to an empty block of flats riven by large cracks.

"Our people are in a bad state, what can we do?" he said as a score of women, their heads wrapped in coloured scarves, began wailing.

The Turkish Red Crescent distributed up to 13,000 tents, and was preparing temporary shelter for about 40,000 people, although there were no reliable figures for the homeless.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government has received international offers of assistance from dozens of countries around the world, including from former ally Israel, but has so far accepted aid only from Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Iran.

The Turkish Red Crescent was criticised for failing to ensure that some of the neediest, particularly in villages, received tents as night temperatures plummeted. The government has apologised for the slowness in distributing tents.

"We were sent 25 tents for 150 homes. Everybody is waiting outside, we've got small children, we've got nothing left," said Ahmet Arikes, the 60-year-old headman of Amik, a village outside Van that was reduced to rubble.

Television images showed desperate men pushing each other roughly to grab tents from the back of a Red Crescent truck.

"I didn't think the Red Crescent was successful enough in giving away tents," Huseyin Celik, deputy chairman of the ruling AK Party, told CNN Turk. "I apologise to our people."

Soon after, the relief agency's chairman told the news channel that 12,000 more tents would reach Van on Tuesday. Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay, overseeing relief operations there, said: "From today there will be nothing our people lack."

Whatever the shortcomings of the relief effort, the disaster posed little risk to Erdogan, who secured a third consecutive term with a strong majority at a national election in June.

The quake is one more affliction for Kurds, the dominant ethnic group in southeast Turkey, where more than 40,000 people have been killed in a three-decade-long separatist insurgency.

"We escaped from terrorism but now we are faced with an earthquake," said Osman Bayram, a 26-year-old teacher, who had moved to Van from a more restive part of the southeast.

The centre of Van, a city of 1 million people, resembled a ghost town with no lights in the streets or buildings. Hardly any people could be seen.

The sense of dislocation was even greater in Ercis. With no homes to return to, thousands of people, mostly men, paced the streets, stopping to look at the destruction or whenever there was some commotion at a rescue site.

At one collapsed building on the main road through Ercis, the area worst hit in Sunday's quake, exhausted rescue workers shouted at crowds of men pushing forward to catch a glimpse as efforts were made to free a woman's corpse from the rubble.

"Get back. Are you not human? Show some respect. Do we not have any honour or pride?" one rescue worker yelled.

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