ERCIS, Turkey (Reuters) - They had gathered in a cafe to celebrate the engagement of two of their colleagues when the earthquake struck, killing tens of Turkey's young teachers.
Young teachers accounted for more than one in 10 victims in Ercis, the town worst hit by the quake in the southeast a week ago, with 56 killed although it happened when schools were closed.
Many of them were in their first year of the job, assigned to the town from elsewhere in Turkey as part of their career development, and had gone to the cafe after a training session.
"It's very sad, these teachers are so young and precious to us, they came from many different cities of Turkey," a state primary school principal told Reuters on Saturday in a tent set up in the garden of a damaged hostel.
According to the official count, at least 582 people were killed by the 7.2 magnitude quake that struck Van province at lunchtime on Sunday. Of the total, 455 were killed in Ercis, a town of nearly 100,000 people.
"Twenty-five teachers, aged between 24-27, almost all in their first year of teaching, attended the celebration. That's why the death toll of teachers was so high. The poor newly engaged couple, died too," the principal said.
An air force lieutenant engaged to a teacher had rushed from his base, outside the provincial capital Van, as soon as the quake struck to look for his fiance, 25-year-old Gul Karacoban.
Discovering from colleagues, that she was among those who had gone to the Buse Cafe, Lieutenant Onur Eryasar hunted the wreckage, calling out her name. Hearing other voices below the rubble he persuaded a rescue teams to begin digging.
After 18 hours, the rescuers pulled Karacoban and two colleagues -- a man and a woman -- out of the rubble. The woman later succumbed to her injuries.
Before joining his fiance in the ambulance, Eryasar said: "I don't want her to work in a town like this again."
Parents and relatives of other teachers, assigned to the town in the economically and socially deprived southeast, will have similar feelings.
The state sends many young teachers and doctors to Van province as part of their development, but few stay beyond three years, because of severe winters, and tensions stemming from a long-running Kurdish separatist insurgency in the region.
In all there were some 1,500 teachers and 48,000 students in Ercis, and half the population was between the ages of six and 18, the principal said. Eighty percent of the teachers came from outside, he added.
Families now living in tent camps on the outskirts of the ruined town were already eager for their children to return to school, while grateful for support given by psychologists for the traumatized youngsters.
"We would welcome anything for the kids, but school is more important, we want schools to be re-opened, our kids should not lag behind their peers in other cities," said Ahmet Karlidag, a 42-year-old father of four.
Asking for his name to be withheld, the principal cast doubt on whether schools would be re-opened as fast as state officials were saying even though only four out of 40 schools appeared to be badly damaged.
"I can't see the schools being back running before February," the principal said. "It's not about buildings, it's about convincing those poor teachers to come back to terrible conditions here."
Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Alison Williams