ERCIS, Turkey (Reuters) - Rescuers searched the rubble of collapsed buildings Monday for survivors and victims of a major earthquake that killed at least 279 people and injured more than 1,300 in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey.
Rescue and relief efforts focused on the city of Van and the town of Ercis, 100 km (60 miles) to the north, but hundreds were also feared dead in remote villages of mud-brick houses after Sunday’s 7.2 magnitude quake, Turkey’s strongest in a decade.
Desperate survivors cried for help beneath heaps of smashed concrete and twisted metal, some using mobile phones to tell friends they were alive, as earth-moving machines and troops raced against time in Van and Ercis.
Thousands of people made homeless by the quake were forced to spend a second night outdoors in the hilly, windswept Van region, enduring near-freezing temperatures. Families huddled round open fires that glowed in the dark. Some stayed in tents put up on soccer pitches, living on handouts from aid agencies.
The U.N. disaster agency said almost 1,000 buildings had collapsed, many of them poorly built. A Red Crescent spokesman said the agency was preparing to provide refuge for as many as 40,000 people, though it was so far impossible to tell how many would need shelter.
Some residents of Van and outlying villages complained of a lack of government assistance, despite the dispatch of troops, mobile kitchens and up to 13,000 tents.
“We have to fit 37 people in one tent,” said Giyasettin Celen, a 29-year-old who lost three family members in Dogonu Koyu, a village beside Lake Van where he said 15 people died.
“Our lost ones were carried like animals, on top of each other, in a transport van. Our main source of income here is livestock breeding, but we don’t have anywhere to keep them. We will have to sell them now,” he said.
Throughout the day, rescue workers pulled people out alive.
“Be patient, be patient,” rescuers in Ercis told a whimpering boy pinned under a concrete slab with the lifeless hand of an adult, a wedding ring on one finger, visible just in front of his face.
A Reuters photographer saw a woman and her daughter being freed from beneath a concrete slab in the wreckage of a six-storey building.
“I‘m here, I‘m here,” the woman, named Fidan, cried out hoarsely. Talking to her regularly while working for more than two hours to find a way through, rescuers cut through the slab, first sighting the daughter’s foot, before freeing them.
In Van, an ancient city of one million on a lake ringed by snow-capped mountains, cranes shifted rubble from a collapsed six-storey apartment block where 70 people were feared trapped.
One woman, standing beside a wrecked four-storey building, told a rescue worker she had spoken to her friend on her mobile phone six hours after the quake trapped her in the wreckage.
“She’s my friend and she called me to say that she’s alive and she’s stuck in the rubble near the stairs of the building,” said her friend, a fellow teacher. “She told me she was wearing red pajamas,” she said, standing with distraught relatives begging the rescue workers to hurry.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan flew to Van to assess the scale of the disaster. It is a quake-prone area that is a hotbed of activity for Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants.
Erdogan said he feared for the fate of villages with houses made of mud brick, saying: “Almost all buildings in such villages are destroyed.”
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the death toll had reached 279, with 1,300 injured, and more were unaccounted for.
The quake brought fresh torment to impoverished southeast Turkey, where PKK militants fighting a decades-long insurgency killed 24 Turkish troops south of Van last week.
The area it struck, near the border with Iran, is remote and mountainous, with long distances between villages and people who live off stock-raising, arable farming and trading.
The hardest-hit town was Ercis, a town of 100,000, where 55 buildings crumpled, including a student dormitory.
At one collapsed four-storey building, firemen from the major southeastern city of Diyarbakir were trying to reach four missing children. Aid workers carried two large black bags, one apparently containing a child’s body, to an ambulance. An old woman wrapped in a headscarf walked alongside sobbing.
A distressed man paced back and forth before running toward the rescue workers on top of the rubble. “That’s my nephew’s house,” he sobbed as workers tried to hold him back.
The Red Crescent has delivered 5,000 tents to Ercis alone and a tent city has been set up at Ercis stadium. But residents said tents were being given only to relatives of police and soldiers, a possible source of tension if confirmed.
“The villages have not received any help yet. Instead of making a show, politicians should be visiting them. The Turkish military says they sent soldiers, where are they?” said a municipality official in Van who did not want to be named.
Ibrahim Baydar, a 40-year-old tradesman from Van, accused the government in Ankara of holding back aid. “All the nylon tents are in the black market now. We cannot find any. People are queuing for them. No tents were given to us whatsoever.”
Rescue efforts were hampered by power outages after the quake toppled electricity lines to towns and villages.
More than 200 aftershocks have jolted the region since the quake, lasting around 25 seconds, struck at 1041 GMT Sunday.
“I just felt the whole earth moving and I was petrified. It went on for ages. And the noise, you could hear this loud, loud noise,” said Hakan Demirtas, 32, a builder who was working on a construction site in Van at the time.
“My house is ruined,” he said, sitting on a low wall after spending the night in the open. “I am still afraid, I‘m in shock. I have no future, there is nothing I can do.”
The Red Crescent said about 100 experts had reached the earthquake zone to coordinate rescue and relief operations. Sniffer dogs had joined the quest for survivors.
Major geological fault lines cross Turkey, where small tremors occur almost daily. Two large quakes in 1999 killed more than 20,000 people in the northwest.
The quake had no impact on Turkish financial markets when they opened Monday.
In Van, construction worker Sulhattin Secen, 27, said he had at first mistaken the rumble of the quake for a car crash.
“Then the ground beneath me started moving up and down as if I was standing in water. May God help us. It’s like life has stopped. What are people going to do?”
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Istanbul; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia, Simon Cameron-Moore and Daren Butler; Editing by Tim Pearce