rescuer carrying girl - Reuters - 25102011
A rescuer carrying a girl found alive in a collapsed building. Photo by Reuters
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VAN, Turkey - Ahmet Gonor stood yesterday examining the rubble that until Sunday morning had been a relatively new, seven-story apartment building. "Yesterday, people were still talking about getting text messages from people trapped inside," he said sadly. "But 30 hours have passed and it doesn't look like there's much hope."

Although media reports about the earthquake that hit 7.2 on the Richter scale have focused on Van, eastern Turkey's large regional center, the city itself suffered relatively light damage. Except for the Sapa apartment building on central Kazim Karabekir Avenue, few buildings in the town collapsed. Most of the destruction was found closer to the quake's epicenter, in the town of Ercis, north of Van, where dozens of buildings were toppled, leaving the town in ruins.

Nevertheless, most of Van's buildings showed signs of quake damage, with deep cracks in outer walls, porches askew and large chunks of concrete that had separated from the buildings and were left seemingly hanging in mid-air.

Yesterday evening, thousands of the city's residents preferred to bed down under the stars, despite the low temperatures. The lucky ones had tents they could pitch in public parks, but most were not so lucky; on street corners, nimble traders could be seen selling plastic sheeting and rope, which were snapped up by men trying to build shelters for their families.

Large portions of the city were still without electricity last night and most of the stores were closed. Judging by the stores that were open, there didn't seem to be food shortages. Official Turkish government reports last night put the death toll at 279, with hundreds still trapped, but most Van residents believe the number of dead is far higher.

"There were 48 apartments in this building alone, and most people were home when the quake hit; it was Sunday and they hadn't gone to work," said Najat Osturk. "There are hundreds of dead, more than a thousand."

Osturk had come to the ruins of the Sapa building with several other relatives to search for their cousin, Chetin Burma, a Van police officer, who was buried under the rubble with his wife, Marian, and their two-month-old baby. No one had heard from them since the earthquake.

Quietly, the searchers expressed their disappointment with the way the rescue was being conducted. Dozens of people were digging around the apartment building that had been wiped out, but only a few were wearing the uniforms of professional rescue teams and the primary work tools were large bulldozers.

"There aren't enough experts here," said Nori Osturk. "Why didn't they let professional rescuers come from other countries? I heard that Israel has excellent search and rescue teams. Why didn't [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan let them come?"

Osturk did not know he was speaking to an Israeli journalist.

At this stage, however, there is little open anger against the government in Ankara for refusing foreign assistance. Even Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the Republican People's Party, Turkey's main opposition, said yesterday that "Turkey is strong enough to heal its wounds without outside help."

The ability to cope alone with the aftermath of an earthquake has become a point of pride for the Turks, after they had to accept extensive foreign help following a devastating earthquake that hit the country's northwest in 1999.