Up to 1,000 people are feared dead after the most devastating earthquake in more than a decade struck eastern Turkey on Sunday, Health Minister Recep Akdag said that so far at least 65 deaths have been confirmed.
“We have a death toll between 65 and 70 and we hope this doesn’t go up,” he told reporters.
As night fell, citizens were using flashlights and shovels as they clambered over the rubble of collapsed buildings looking for survivors.
At least seven aftershocks rattled the region, one of the nation’s poorest.
The U.S. Geological Survey initially reported the quake had a magnitude of 7.3, then revised it down to 7.2.
Some 25 apartment buildings and a student dormitory collapsed in the town of Ercis on the north shore of Lake Van, the Turkish Red Crescent said.
Local rescuers took many wounded people out of the dormitory, the Red Crescent statement said, without saying exactly how many.
A health services building also collapsed, along with part of a hospital. At least two doctors were thought to be in the rubble of the health services building. The injured were being treated in the hospital’s garden.
Official rescue efforts were under way in Ercis, but residents were also conducting efforts of their own. Ambulances were having trouble getting into town because the roads were littered with rubble, she said.
Video footage from the scene showed survivors freed from the rubble being loaded onto stretchers amid a crush of rescue workers and bystanders. Heavy equipment was used to sift through rubble as residents gathered around small fires.
The Red Crescent called for rescue workers, heavy machinery and drinking water. A crisis center was set up by the country’s Health Ministry in the Turkish capital, Ankara.
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said 10 buildings had collapsed in the center of the city of Van, citing local authorities.
Health Minister Akdag said an air ambulance and several helicopters would go to the quake zone.
Television pictures from Van province showed rescuers and members of the public climbing over massive piles of cinder blocks that had been a building before the earthquake hit.
Rescue teams of about 500 people were on the ground, according to the crisis center, and additional aid teams were dispatched from 29 surrounding cities. Medical helicopters were transporting the injured to hospitals in other provinces, the center said.
Two tent hospitals were being set up in Ercis, and two cargo planes were dispatched from the capital carrying medical teams and aid.
A seven-story building collapsed on Kazim Karabekir Street in the city of Van, and more buildings were reduced to rubble the village of Tabanli in Van province, the Anatolian news agency said. It was unknown how many people were trapped.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Health Minister Akdag arrived in the area Sunday, according to the Ministry of Health’s crisis center.
Israel offered Turkey “any help it may require” after the earthquake, Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s office said. Israel and Turkey, once close allies, saw a deterioration in relations in a dispute over an Israeli naval commando raid on the Gaza-bound ship Mavi Marmara, in which nine Turkish activists were killed.
Other nations and organizations offered condolences and assistance to Turkey.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the brave men and women who are working to bring assistance to this stricken region,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Turkish ally at this difficult time, and are ready to assist the Turkish authorities.” U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a similar statement.
A spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry said the country, while grateful for offers of aid, is prepared to handle the disaster on its own.