1,000 feared dead in Turkey earthquake

IDF Chief Medical Officer Col. Dr. Ariel Bar and Lt.-Col. Dr. Chaim Levon perform lifesaving surgery at an IDF field hospital in Haiti, following the earthquake there in January 2010. (IDF)

JERUSALEM (JWN and agencies)—Turkish officials say at least 250 people have been confirmed dead so far and many hundreds more are feared to have been killed in a severe earthquake that struck southeastern Turkey Sunday afternoon. More than 1,000 have been injured.

The tremor’s magnitude measured 7.2 on the Richter scale, making it the most severe earthquake to hit Turkey since 1999.

Rescuers were frantically trying to aid survivors and dig out those buried in the wreckage of collapsed buildings in Van and Ercis, the two cities hit the hardest. Van’s population is some one million; Ercis’s is about 100,000.

Israel immediately offered to send its crack civil defense rescue teams, including experienced excavators and a field hospital, but the Turkish government declined.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Channel 2 television Sunday night that Turkey was not interested in receiving Israel’s help, despite Israel sending teams in a rescue effort after the quake 11 years ago and Turkey’s sending help in last year’s Carmel forest fire disaster. “We’re in a different reality now,” Barak said, noting that Israel is standing by in case Turkey’s government changes its mind.

President Shimon Peres had phoned Turkish President Abdullah Gul to offer Israel’s help, telling him, “Israel is willing to provide any aid required anywhere in Turkey and at any time,” according to a statement released by his office.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry official told Reuters that Turkey had received offers of help from dozens of countries after the severe quake, and had so far declined assistance from all of them.

In Ercis, rescue teams worked through the night to try to free survivors crying for help from under rubble, Reuters reported. One nurse told CNN the town’s hospital was so badly damaged that staff were treating injured in the garden, and bodies were being left outside the building.

Survivors joined emergency personnel to search frantically through mounds of smashed concrete and other debris with shovels and their bare hands after the quake toppled buildings and collapsed roads.

The news agency reported that rescue efforts were hampered by power outages, after the quake brought down power cables linking towns and villages across much of the barren Anatolian steppe near the Iranian border, where the quake centered.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told a press conference late Sunday night there were an unknown number of people unaccounted for under the collapsed buildings of the cities, but he feared the worst for villagers in outlying rural areas, which had been cut off.

“Because the [rural] buildings are made of adobe, they are more vulnerable to quakes. I must say that almost all buildings in such villages are destroyed,” Erdogan told reporters in Van after midnight Sunday.

In a statement from Washington, President Barack Obama offered condolences to the victims’ families. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the brave men and women who are working to bring assistance to this stricken region,” Obama said. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Turkish ally in this difficult time, and are ready to assist the Turkish authorities.”