'We cannot get to survivors fast enough'

Death toll from Turkish earthquake nears 300 as villagers claim to have been left without help
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Thousands of people were working frantically yesterday to save survivors from the devastating earthquake in eastern Turkey despite rescue efforts being hampered by serious shortcomings in equipment.

Click HERE to view Van earthquake graphic (158 kb)

As the death toll in Van province climbed yesterday evening to 279, with 1,300 injured, rescue teams described hearing calls for help from beneath the rubble from victims who they were unable to reach.

"We can't get to survivors fast enough," one rescue team member said, according to local media. In Ercis, a town of about 75,000 near the Iranian border said to have been hit hardest by Sunday's earthquake, it was reported that rescuers only had access to one device for detecting survivors under rubble. "We have to yell in buildings to see if anyone is there," one worker told the Hurriyet Daily News.

There were also reports that many villages in the surrounding area had been left without assistance, although that claim was denied by the Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay. An official at the Ercis municipality told The Independent that the town urgently needed supplies if it was to prevent more deaths.

"We need blood [for the injured] and machinery to break the concrete to search for survivors faster," said Mustafa Aratoglu. He said the town also needed generators and batteries for heaters.

At least 120 people have already been killed in Ercis after 80 multi-storey buildings collapsed, including a student dormitory. The 7.2-magnitude earthquake, six miles underground, has knocked down 970 buildings in total. It is expected that the death toll will rise as teams reach outlying areas. Across the province, people were reportedly sleeping in tents provided by the government. Too scared to return to their homes, they lit fires, trying to stay warm as nighttime temperatures dropped towards freezing. Their suffering is likely to intensify, with snow expected later in the week.

In Ercis, the Turkish Red Crescent had set up tents in a stadium. But Mr Aratoglu said the tents had arrived late and the distribution was disorganised. Other residents told Reuters that tents were only being given to relatives of police and soldiers. One man told the news agency that he believed the government in Ankara was holding back aid.

"All the nylon tents are on the black market now," said Ibrahim Baydar, a 40-year-old tradesman. "We cannot find any. People are queueing for them. No tents were given to us whatsoever."

Another Van official, Abdurrahman Dogar, said the situation in the smaller villages was even worse. "There is nothing: no tents, no blankets, no food," he said. "There are babies outside, there are pregnant women outside in the cold." Construction worker, Sulhattin Secen, 27, said he had initially thought the sound of the earthquake was a car crash.

"Then the ground beneath me started moving up and down as if I was standing in water," he said. "May God help us. It's like life has stopped. What are people going to do?"

Visiting Van on Sunday, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he was especially concerned about the villages, which are largely composed of mud-brick homes.

"I must say that almost all buildings in such villages are destroyed," he said.

Countries including Britain, the United States, Iran and Azerbaijan have offered support. An offer of assistance from Israel has reportedly been rebuffed, reflecting the two countries' troubled relations in the aftermath of last year's fatal shooting by Israeli forces of nine Turks aboard a Gaza-bound flotilla. "The Turks are not interested in our aid this time," Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told Israel's Channel 2 TV station.

Rescue efforts: Five people pulled alive from the rubble

There were some good news stories among the destruction yesterday, with five people rescued alive from the rubble. One boy was pulled out from under a concrete slab, after crying out for help with the lifeless hand of an adult resting on his shoulder. He was one of two children rescued, while a man, Yalcin Akay, was dug out from a collapsed six-storey building with a leg injury after he called a police emergency line on his phone and described his location.