Earthquake death toll reaches 279 as efforts to rescue hundreds under way

A search for survivors has been ongoing in the wake of a powerful earthquake that »»

A search for survivors has been ongoing in the wake of a powerful earthquake that struck the province of Van on Sunday, killing at least 279 people and injuring more than 1,300. Hundreds more were feared dead, as Turkey’s most powerful quake in a decade toppled mud brick houses in remote villages.

»» Click here to see more photos from the quake-hit area.

As some desperate survivors cried for help from beneath mounds of smashed concrete and twisted metal, earthmoving machines and soldiers joined the search following Sunday’s 7.2 magnitude quake which struck the city of Van and the town of Erciş, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the north.

Rescue teams on Monday sifted through rubble of flattened multistory buildings to try to reach dozens of people believed to be trapped beneath. Meanwhile, Turkish deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç told reporters following a cabinet meeting on Monday that the death toll increased to 279 and at least 1,300 people are wounded.

The Ministry of Education also announced on Monday that among the people who had died in the earthquake were 22 teachers and eight students.

Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay, coordinating the government’s response at the quake zone in Van province, told a news conference on Monday that tents were being assembled and food distributed as part of the major relief and rescue operation.

Hundreds of rescue teams worked throughout the night searching for survivors among dozens of pancaked buildings, as aid groups scrambled to set up tents, field hospitals and kitchens to assist the thousands left homeless.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan flew swiftly to Van to assess the scale of the disaster in a quake-prone area that is also a hotbed of activity for the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Erdoğan said he feared for the fate of the villages that rescue teams had yet to reach. “Because the buildings are made of mud brick, they are more vulnerable to quakes. I must say that almost all buildings in such villages have been destroyed,” he told an overnight news conference in Van.

Erdoğan later returned to Ankara for a Cabinet meeting to discuss the response to the disaster. He said Turkey could cope by itself, but thanked nations offering help, including Armenia and Israel, which both have strained relations with Ankara.

The İstanbul-based Kandilli seismology center originally reported that the magnitude was 6.6, but later corrected it to 7.2. The quake occurred at 1:41 p.m. Its epicenter was in the village of Tabanlı in the eastern province of Van, bordering Iran, but the quake was also felt in the provincial capital and in the neighboring provinces of Bitlis, Muş, Batman, Diyarbakır and Hakkari. The quake struck at a depth of five kilometers.

Kandilli Director Mustafa Erdik also said the quake caused the most serious damage in Van and Erciş and that they predict the death toll to be as high as 1,000. Şahin said at least 80 multistory buildings had collapsed in the earthquake.

Authorities advised people to stay away from damaged homes, warning that they could collapse in aftershocks. The Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay) said about 100 of its staff had reached the earthquake zone to coordinate rescue and relief operations. Some 5,000 tents and 11,000 blankets, stoves and food were being distributed and mobile kitchens were set up to feed those made homeless.

Sniffer dogs were also reportedly being used to help search for survivors.

A Turkish Airlines (THY) cargo plane unloaded aid materials at Van Ferit Melen Airport onto military vehicles waiting there for distribution.

Rescue efforts went deep into the night under generator-powered floodlights. Workers tied steel rods around large concrete slabs in Van, and then lifted them with heavy machinery.

International offers of aid poured in from NATO, China, Japan, the United States, Azerbaijan, European countries and Israel, whose ties with Ankara have soured since Israeli commandoes killed nine Turks during a raid on an aid flotilla bound for the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip in 2010.

Major geological fault lines cross Turkey and small earthquakes are a near daily occurrence.

Two large quakes in 1999 killed more than 20,000 people in northwest Turkey.

An earthquake struck Van province in November 1976 and left 5,291 confirmed dead. Two people were killed and 79 injured in May when an earthquake shook Simav, Kütahya province, in northwest Turkey.