A powerful 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck mountainous eastern Turkey on Sunday, collapsing dozens of buildings into piles of twisted steel and chunks of concrete. Desperate survivors dug into the rubble with their bare hands, trying to rescue the trapped and injured.
Only one death was immediately confirmed, but scientists estimated that up to 1,000 people could already be dead, due to the structure of housing in the area and the magnitude of the quake.
Hardest hit was the town of Ercis in the mountainous eastern province of Van, close to the Iranian border, which lies on the Ercis Fault. The bustling city of Van also suffered substantial damage.
“Around 10 buildings have collapsed in the city of Van and around 25 or 30 have collapsed in Ercis, including a dormitory,” Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said.
In Ercis, rescuers scrambled to find survivors in a flattened eight-story building that had shops on the ground floor, television footage showed. Residents sobbed outside the ruins, hoping that missing relatives would be rescued.
“My wife and child are inside! My 4-month-old baby is inside!” CNN-Turk television showed one young man crying.
Witnesses said eight people were rescued from the rubble, but frequent aftershocks were hampering search efforts, CNN-Turk reported.
“There are so many dead. Several buildings have collapsed. There is too much destruction,” Zulfikar Arapoglu, the mayor of Ercis, told NTV television. “We need urgent aid. We need medics.”
Turkey, which lies in one of the world’s most active seismic zones, experiences frequent earthquakes and is crossed by numerous fault lines. Sunday’s earthquake struck in the country’s most earthquake-prone region, around Lake Van near the border with Iran.
U.S. scientists recorded eight aftershocks within three hours of the quake, including two with a magnitude of 5.6.
Atalay said authorities had no information yet on remote villages, adding that the governor was touring the region by helicopter to assess damage.
The quake’s epicenter was in the village of Tabanli, 10 miles (17 kilometers) from Van.
Authorities did not provide a casualty figure but the Kandilli observatory, Turkey’s main seismography center, said the quake was capable of killing many people.
“We are estimating a death toll between 500 and 1,000,” Mustafa Erdik, head of the Kandilli observatory, told a televised news conference.
In Van, terrified residents spilled into the streets in panic as rescue workers and residents using their bare hands and shovels struggled to find people believed to be trapped under collapsed buildings, television footage showed. At least 50 people were treated in the courtyard of the state hospital, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.
There was no immediate information about a recently restored 10th century Armenian church, Akdamar Church, which is perched on a rocky island in the nearby Lake Van.
Serious damage and casualties were also reported in the district of Celebibag, near Ercis.
“There are many people under the rubble,” Veysel Keser, mayor of Celebibag, told NTV. “People are in agony, we can hear their screams for help. We need urgent help.”
“It’s a great disaster,” he said. “Many buildings have collapsed, student dormitories, hotels and gas stations have collapsed.”
Houses also collapsed in the province of Bitlis, where at least one person, an 8-year-old girl was killed, authorities said. The quake also toppled the minarets of two mosques in the nearby province of Mus, reports said.
NTV said Van’s airport was damaged and planes were being diverted to neighboring cities.
The earthquake also shook buildings in neighboring Armenia. In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, located 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Ercis, people rushed into the streets fearing buildings would collapse. No damage or injuries were immediately reported. Armenia was the site of a devastating earthquake in 1988 that killed 25,000 people.
The quake also caused panic among residents in several Iranian towns, close to the Turkish border, and caused cracks in some buildings in Chaldoran and cut telephone links, Iranian state TV said on its website.
An officials said the quake was also felt in Salmas, Maku, Khoi and several other towns in northeastern Iran but no damage has been reported.
Turkey sees frequent earthquakes. In 1999, two earthquakes with a magnitude of more than 7 struck northwestern Turkey, killing about 18,000 people.
More recently, a 6.0-magnitude quake in March 2010 killed 51 people in eastern Turkey, while in 2003, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake killed 177 people in the southeastern city of Bingol.
Turkey’s worst earthquake in the last century came in 1939 in Erzincan, causing an estimated 160,000 deaths.
Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city with more than 12 million people, lies in northwestern Turkey near a major fault line. Authorities say the city is ill-prepared for a major earthquake and experts have warned that overcrowding and faulty construction could lead to the deaths of over 40,000 people in a major quake.
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