ANKARA, Turkey – Cries of panic and horror filled the air as a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck eastern Turkey, killing at least 217 people as buildings pancaked and crumpled into rubble. The death toll was expected to rise as rescuers sifted through the rubble and reached outlying villages.
Tens of thousands fled into the streets running, screaming or trying to reach relatives on cellphones as apartment and office buildings cracked or collapsed. As the full extent of the damage became clear, survivors dug in with shovels or even their bare hands, desperately trying to rescue the trapped and the injured.
“There are many people under the rubble,” Veysel Keser, the mayor of the district of Celebibag, told NTV. “People are in agony. We can hear their screams for help.”
Celebibag is near the hardest-hit area: Ercis, an eastern city of 75,000 close to the Iranian border and on one of Turkey’s most earthquake-prone zones. The bustling city of Van, about 55 miles south of Ecris, also sustained substantial damage. Highways in the area caved in. The temblor struck at 1:41 p.m., the U.S. Geological Survey said.
Turkey’s interior minister, Idris Naim Sahin, said today that 117 people had died in Ercis, while some 100 were killed in Van.
Up to 80 buildings collapsed in Ercis, including a dormitory, and 10 buildings collapsed in Van, the Turkish Red Crescent said. The sheer number of collapsed buildings gave rise to fears that the death toll could rise substantially.
U.S. scientists recorded over 100 aftershocks in eastern Turkey within 10 hours of the quake, including one with a magnitude of 6.0. Authorities advised people to stay away from damaged homes, warning they could collapse in the aftershocks.
Residents in Van and Ercis lit campfires, preparing to spend the night outdoors while the Red Crescent began setting up tents in a stadium. Others sought shelter with relatives in nearby villages.
Rescue efforts went deep into the night under generator-powered floodlights. Workers tied steel rods around large concrete slabs in Van, then lifted them with heavy machinery.
Residents sobbed outside the ruins of one flattened eight-story building, hoping that missing relatives would be found. Witnesses said eight people were pulled from the rubble, but frequent aftershocks hampered search efforts. By late evening, some joy emerged as a ninth, a teenage girl, was pulled out alive.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged residents to stay away from damaged buildings and promised assistance to all survivors.
“We won’t leave anyone to fend for themselves in the cold of winter,” he said.
Some inmates escaped a prison in Van after one of its walls collapsed. TRT television said around 150 inmates had fled, but a prison official said the number was much smaller and many later returned.