Painstaking search for survivors

Two members of a Turkish search and rescue team talk to each other as others search a collapsed building for earthquake survivors in Ercis Collapsed apartment blocks are swarming with rescue workers

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The main street in Ercis has been transformed. Some of the buildings lean over at alarming angles, bits of debris dropping from them.

Then there are the mounds of concrete slabs, multifloor apartment blocks crushed down to the height of a single storey.

They are all swarming with orange-suited rescue workers, hammering and drilling, cranes standing by to lift the sawn-off hunks of masonry in the hope that someone may have survived in an air pocket.

Every so often, there is a call for silence. The drills, saws and generators stop, and one of the rescuers shouts into the rubble, listening intensely for any sounds of life.

For most of the day, those calls have gone unanswered. But in the morning, they could hear a woman's voice.

The activity moved down to a buckled doorway, and after hours of digging away, a rare moment of elation in this tragedy. A rescue worker walked out cradling two-week-old Azra in his arms, remarkably unharmed by her ordeal.

A few hours later, they brought out her mother and grandmother, carrying only minor injuries.

Throughout the day, there have been these ups and downs.

At another site, they brought out a 29-year-old man, alive and well. But they also brought out the body of six-year-old Elif, who had lived on the top floor of the six-storey building. Her family buried her a few hours later.

Lessons learnt

All day, families have walked down the street, grieving openly for their loss. I met Fikret Ergin, watching in tears as they dug through the remains of the building where his daughter and son-in-law had lived.

He had seen bits of their clothing in the rubble, and was sure they were dead.

Earthquake area

  • One of Turkey's most earthquake-prone zones
  • Kurdish-populated
  • Ercis, an eastern city of 75,000 close to the Iranian border, was the worst-hit
  • Van, large ancient city of one million on a lake ringed by mountains, less affected

It is an emotional task for the rescuers. I met Savas, who has been working without a break since Sunday. How did he keep going? "I just think all the time about my four year-old daughter, and what I would do if she was under there," he said.

At the airport in the city of Van, plane after plane have been flying in, carrying emergency teams and relief supplies.

Turkey insists it does not need any outside help, and the rescue operation has certainly been scaled up very quickly to meet the needs.

But there have been complaints about the way the operation has been organised, even from some of the rescuers themselves, who told us they were initially sent without essential equipment.

Turkey has come a long way since the last big earthquake of August 1999, when at least 17,000 died, and the response by the authorities was widely condemned as hopelessly inadequate.

Lessons were learned, and improvements made.

But one lesson that seems not to have been learned is how to ensure buildings are constructed to withstand the tremors that frequently shake the country.

The building codes are quite strict - but the distressing sight of all those mangled apartment blocks in Ercis suggests the codes are not always honoured.

Turkey earthquake map

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