ISTANBUL // Rescue teams in eastern Turkey were racing against the onset of winter yesterday to find survivors under the rubble of apartment blocks destroyed by Sunday's devastating earthquake, as a massive aid operation got underway to feed and house tens of thousands of people made homeless by the catastrophe.
Turkey's interior ministry yesterday put the number of dead at 279, with more than 1,000 injured. Sunday's magnitude 7.2 earthquake in the province of Van near the border with Iran, which lasted 25 seconds, was the most powerful in Turkey in years and destroyed 970 buildings, the prime minister's office in Ankara said.
The interior ministry said 80 multi-storey apartment buildings collapsed in the town of Ercis alone. The provincial capital of Van was also badly hit. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, rushed to Van late on Sunday together with six of his ministers to coordinate rescue and aid efforts. Mr Erdogan also visited Ercis.
"We are bringing all the state's assets to Van," Besir Atalay, a deputy prime minister, told a televised news conference in Van yesterday. "There is a rescue team working on every collapsed building." He said rescue teams had arrived from all over the country.
With temperatures falling to freezing during the night and snowfall expected in the region in coming days, authorities struggled to cope with the double challenge of conducting a search and rescue operation while simultaneously organising shelter and food for survivors. Rescue and aid efforts were hindered by hundreds of aftershocks, one of which was magnitude 5.7, a medium-sized quake in itself.
Many people in Van province spent the night after the quake out in the open, heeding warnings by authorities not to return to damaged buildings. The Turkish Red Crescent said it was sending 7,500 heated tents and 22,000 blankets to the region. Tent cities were erected on football pitches and in other open areas. Mr Atalay said soup kitchens sent to Van were equipped to feed 25,000 people.
As the aid effort gathered strength, rescuers yesterday found several survivors in the ruins of collapsed buildings. In one case, a 19-year-old named Yalcin Akay was able to call the police on his mobile phone from under the rubble of his apartment block in Ercis and direct rescue teams towards him, Turkish media reported.
Mr Akay was pulled out from the pile of concrete and twisted iron and was brought to hospital with leg injuries. He told rescuers other people remained trapped in the ruins of the six-storey building.
But another dimension of the challenge facing rescuers emerged as news began trickling in from villages around Van that had not been reached by rescue teams 24 hours after the quake. A journalist from the NTV news channel reporting from one such village, Guveclikoy, about 30km from the provincial capital, said 12 people had died there, including several children. Mr Atalay said he was going to tour outlying villages in the course of the day to see what was needed there.
No one was killed or hurt in the village of Tabanli, which was at the epicentre of the quake that struck at a depth of 20km. "Some of our houses are completely gone," Fikri Yuka, the village foreman, told The National by telephone. He said all the villagers were out in the open scrubbing their carpets when the quake struck, because the village had started to prepare for the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha.
Experts said shoddy construction, a disregard for building regulations and a lack of proper inspections by officials all contributed to the death of many people in a region known for dangerous seismic activity. "An earthquake does not kill," Serdar Harp, chairman of the association of Turkish construction engineers, told Turkish media. "It's buildings that kill."
The earthquake in Van, a poor and predominantly Kurdish area, triggered an aid effort in the whole of Turkey, with many local communities organising collections of food and winter clothes to be sent east. To help with the reconstruction effort, the government sent emergency financial aid to the province and announced tax breaks for small companies in the region.
Coming soon after a dramatic escalation of the long-running Kurdish conflict with the death of 24 soldiers in an attack by Kurdish rebels last week and the deaths of dozens of militants in the Turkish response, Kurdish politicians welcomed the solidarity of the country.
"There is a greeting of brotherhood with all the aid that is coming from the four corners of the country," Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the Party for Peace and Democracy), Turkey's main Kurdish party, said in a Twitter message.
Rescue teams from neighbouring Azerbaijan and Iran were working alongside Turkish rescuers in Van, but the government rejected offers of help from other countries. Iran sent 20 rescuers, 20 ambulances, a field hospital, food supplies and 50 tents for emergency shelter to Van, the Iranian Red Crescent said.
The UAE was coordinating a relief team to go to Turkey, WAM reported yesterday, although it was unclear if Ankara would accept the offer.
Media reports said Israel, whose relations with former partner Turkey have been in a crisis, was among the countries offering help, as was neighbouring Armenia, another country whose relations with Turkey have been strained.