Hopes fade for missing as Turkey quake toll rises

4 min

Elazig (Turkey) (AFP)

Rescuers desperately attempted Sunday to find survivors in eastern Turkey in the rubble of collapsed buildings after a powerful earthquake claimed at least 38 lives.

Nearly 4,000 rescue workers combed through debris in freezing temperatures, helped by mechanical diggers, as hope was fading as the 48th hour approached.

Three bodies were found in the city centre, nearly 40 hours after the 6.8-magnitude quake struck Friday evening.

Hours later, two more bodies were found bringing the death toll to 38 in Elazig province and nearby Malatya, state broadcaster TRT reported.

Rescuers carefully cleared the remains of the collapsed four-storey building where the bodies were found, using buckets to remove broken material as a sniffer dog was brought to the scene.

Workers were searching for two people still under the rubble, Hurriyet daily said.

Residents were still waiting to find out what had happened to their relatives. A group of women burst into tears on learning that the body of a relative had been found, while one woman fainted, an AFP photographer said.

But rescue workers have so far saved 45 people, the authorities say.

The government's disaster and emergency management agency (AFAD) said 1,607 were injured, 13 of them in intensive care.

The story of Syrian university student Mahmud al Osman, who used only his bare hands to rescue a man and woman from underneath rubble, went viral.

Osman told state news agency Anadolu he heard voices after the quake ended while Durdane and Zulkuf Aydin said they shouted when they saw Osman's telephone light before he and others helped rescue them.

Turkey is home to 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey and although there are limited social problems, tensions have increased following an economic downturn.

There was growing concern for residents amid the bitter cold, said Hasan Duran, a 58-year-old shopkeeper, who lives in Sursuru.

"If it was summer, people could maybe resist a little longer. But with this cold, it's hard to imagine. Even we are freezing at home. May God give them strength."

- 'Every effort made' -

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday "every effort was made to ensure citizens whose homes have collapsed or been damaged will not suffer in this winter period."

Environment Minister Murat Kurum vowed a "radical transformation project" for buildings in the region at risk in the event of another quake.

Since Friday's quake, there have been 714 aftershocks, 20 of them above four in magnitude.

Residents avoided returning to their homes because of aftershock fears. Around a thousand people were spending the night in two trains converted into emergency accommodation in Elazig station.

"There is no risk of being caught in a collapsed building here and it's warmer than a tent," Berivan Arslan, 55, said, who left her home because of cracks in the building's facade.

With her daughter and two granddaughters coping with the boredom by playing with a doll, she had spent two nights sleeping in a six-seat compartment.

There are two trains on the platform while a third is scheduled to arrive Sunday evening from Ankara, according to the Turkish National Railway Company (TCDD).

- Anger rising -

But with not enough emergency accommodation to cover the needs of 350,000 residents in Elazig city, tensions were rising.

In a public park in the city centre, dozens of tents have been erected, most of them accommodating Syrians, which has aroused hostility.

"So, what, this is a refugee camp? I have no tent yet I am a Turk," an elderly lady told an AFAD official, who promised more tents would arrive Monday.

The epicentre of the quake was in the small lakeside town of Sivrice in Elazig province, but it also hit neighbouring cities and countries.

With a population of around 4,000, Sivrice is located south of Elazig city on the shores of Hazar lake -- one of the most popular tourist spots in the region.

The US Geological Survey said the magnitude was 6.7, slightly lower than AFAD, adding that it struck near the East Anatolian fault in an area that has suffered no documented major incidents since an earthquake in 1875.

The recent quake left many wondering how Istanbul would cope, amid heightened fears of a powerful one, which seismologists say is unavoidable.

In 1999, a devastating 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit Izmit in western Turkey, killing more than 17,000 people including about 1,000 in the country's most populous city, Istanbul.