Rescue workers raced against time Saturday to find survivors under the rubble after a powerful earthquake claimed 22 lives and left more than 1,000 injured in eastern Turkey.
The magnitude 6.8 quake struck on Friday evening, with its epicentre in the small lakeside town of Sivrice in Elazig province, and was felt in neighbouring countries.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said 39 people have been rescued alive from collapsed buildings in Elazig province, with a further 22 people estimated to be trapped under the rubble. He said the death toll had risen to 22.
Among those found alive was a pregnant woman who was rescued 12 hours after the quake hit, state news agency Anadolu said, while an AFP correspondent saw an individual saved 17 hours later.
Nearly 2,000 search and rescue personnel were sent to the region while thousands of beds, blankets and tents have been provided, the Turkish presidency said.
The rescue efforts have been taking place in freezing temperatures as wood and plastic were burned to keep crowds warm.
Hundreds of people were anxiously waiting on the other side of police barriers including a man who gave his name as Mustafa.
“I have three relatives in that building: one man, his wife and her mother. They are still under the rubble,” the 40-year-old told AFP.
“May God help us, we can do nothing but pray.
“I was home during the earthquake. It lasted for so long, it was like a nightmare. I froze in the living room when it happened, my wife and our two children were screaming and running around,” he said.
He added that some neighbours jumped out of the windows because they panicked as families including his were forced to spend Friday night on the streets.
Some 20 rescuers were on top of the remains of one collapsed building, slowly clearing the rubble one bucket at a time surrounded by broken wooden beams and concrete.
Nearby Ayse Sonmez, 48, wept in silence at the barrier. She was only able to point to one of the heavily damaged buildings and say, “My older sister.”
‘Screaming in terror’
Sivrice — a town with a population of about 4,000 — is situated south of Elazig city on the shores of Hazar lake — one of the most popular tourist spots in the region and the source of the Tigris river.
The lake is home to a “Sunken City”, with archaeological traces dating back 4,000 years in its waters.
The interior minister said 18 people were killed in Elazig while four died in Malatya.
Among the 1,031 people injured were residents in other provinces in the southeast including Diyarbakir, Batman, Sanliurfa, Adiyaman and Kahramanmaras, the Turkish government’s disaster and emergency management agency (AFAD) said.
Health minister Fahrettin Koca said 128 people were still receiving treatment including 34 in intensive care but added that no one was in a critical condition.
Tensions were high as one resident accused the government of lying.
“They (the government) claim that only four people are trapped under the rubble. It is not true. I have five relatives in that building,” Suat, a 45-year-old butcher, said.
“There are four floors and three flats per floor. If there were five people per flat, do the math. Why are they lying?”
Suat described the moment when the quake struck as he was at home in another Elazig neighbourhood and his children “were screaming in terror.”
The Ankara public prosecutor’s office later on Saturday said it had begun an investigation into “provocative” social media posts but did not give further details.
Tremors felt elsewhere
The tremor was felt in several parts of eastern Turkey near the Iraqi and Syrian borders as well as in Iran, Lebanon and Syria, local media reported.
Environment and Urbanisation Minister Murat Kurum told reporters in Elazig that five buildings collapsed following the quake while others were badly or lightly damaged.
The US Geological Survey assessed the magnitude as 6.7, slightly lower than AFAD, adding that it struck near the East Anatolian Fault in an area that has suffered no documented large ruptures since an earthquake in 1875.
According to AFAD, there have been nearly 400 aftershocks following Friday’s quake including 12 that were above four in magnitude.
In 1999, a devastating 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit Izmit in western Turkey, leaving more than 17,000 people dead including about 1,000 in Istanbul.
Experts have long warned a large quake could devastate the city of 15 million people, which has allowed widespread building without safety precautions.
Such fears were acutely awakened in September last year when a 5.7-magnitude earthquake shook Istanbul, causing residents to flee buildings in the economic capital.