A powerful 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck eastern Turkey, killing at least 75 people and sparking panic as it collapsed buildings into piles of twisted steel and chunks of concrete.
Desperate survivors dug Sunday into the rubble with their bare hands, trying to rescue the trapped and injured.
State-run TRT television reported that 59 people were killed and 150 injured in the eastern town of Ercis, and 15 others died in the provincial center of Van. Another person died in the nearby province of Bitlis.
As many as 80 buildings collapsed in Ercis, including a dormitory, and 10 buildings collapsed in Van, the Turkish Red Crescent said. Some highways also caved in, CNN-Turk television reported.
“There are so many dead. Several buildings have collapsed. There is too much destruction,” Ercis mayor Zulfikar Arapoglu told NTV television. “We need urgent aid. We need medics.”
Rescuers in Van scrambled to find survivors in a flattened eight-story building that had shops on the ground floor, television footage showed. Residents sobbed outside the ruins, hoping that missing relatives would be rescued.
“My wife and child are inside! My 4-month-old baby is inside!” CNN-Turk television showed one young man crying.
Witnesses said eight people were rescued from the rubble, but frequent aftershocks were hampering search efforts, CNN-Turk reported.
Serious damage and casualties were also reported in the district of Celebibag, near Ercis.
“There are many people under the rubble,” Veysel Keser, mayor of Celebibag, told NTV. “People are in agony, we can hear their screams for help. We need urgent help.”
He said many buildings had collapsed, including student dormitories, hotels and gas stations.
The quake’s epicenter was in the village of Tabanli, 10 miles (17 kilometers) from Van. It struck at 10:41 a.m. local time, at a depth of 12.4 miles (20 kilometers), according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Turkey lies in one of the world’s most active seismic zones and is crossed by numerous fault lines. Lake Van, where Sunday’s earthquake hit, is in the country’s most earthquake-prone region.
U.S. scientists recorded eight aftershocks within three hours of the quake, including two with a magnitude of 5.6.
Atalay said authorities had no information yet on remote villages but the governor was touring the region by helicopter to assess the damage.
The Kandilli observatory, Turkey’s main seismography center, said the quake was capable of killing many people.
“We are estimating a death toll between 500 and 1,000,” Mustafa Erdik, head of the Kandilli observatory, told a televised news conference.
In Van, terrified residents spilled into the streets in panic as rescue workers and residents using their bare hands and shovels struggled to find people believed to be trapped under collapsed buildings, television footage showed. At least 50 people were treated in the courtyard of the state hospital, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.
There was no immediate information about a recently restored 10th century Armenian church, Akdamar Church, which is perched on a rocky island in the nearby Lake Van.
Houses also collapsed in the province of Bitlis, where an 8-year-old girl was killed, authorities said. The quake also toppled the minarets of two mosques in the nearby province of Mus.
NTV said Van’s airport was damaged and planes were being diverted to neighboring cities.
The earthquake also shook buildings in neighboring Armenia. In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Ercis, people rushed into the streets fearing buildings would collapse but no damage or injuries were immediately reported.
Armenia was the site of a devastating earthquake in 1988 that killed 25,000 people.
The quake’s epicenter was in the village of Tabanli in eastern Van province, bordering Iran. It was felt in northwest Iran, causing some panic in major cities, Iranian media reported, but without any mention of casualties or damage.
The quake was felt in Iran’s cities of Orumiyeh, Khoy and Salmas near the border, the official IRNA news agency reported.
It was also felt in Tabriz, an Iranian city about 200 kilometers east of the epicenter, the Mehr news agency reported, quoting the regional governor general, Jafar Zolfaqari.
The tremors were strong enough to cause “scenes of panic among the population of the cities,” according to several Iranian media.
However, there was “currently no indication of damage or casualties” in Iranian territory, Zolfaqari said.
Israel on Sunday offered humanitarian assistance to Turkey despite a rift in relations following an 2010 Israeli navy raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that left nine Turks dead. In September, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador and suspended military ties because Israel has not apologized. Israel has sent rescue teams to Turkey after past earthquakes in times of closer ties.
Turkey sees frequent earthquakes. In 1999, two earthquakes with a magnitude of more than 7 struck northwestern Turkey, killing about 18,000 people.
More recently, a 6.0-magnitude quake in March 2010 killed 51 people in eastern Turkey, while in 2003, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake killed 177 people in the southeastern city of Bingol.
Turkey’s worst earthquake in the last century came in 1939 in the eastern city of Erzincan, causing an estimated 160,000 deaths.
Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city with more than 12 million people, lies in northwestern Turkey near a major fault line. Authorities say Istanbul is ill-prepared for a major earthquake and experts have warned that overcrowding and faulty construction could lead to the deaths of over 40,000 people if a major earthquake struck the city.
By the Los Angeles Times: Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim from Tehran contributed to this report.