ANKARA – Working against the clock in freezing temperatures, Turkish rescue teams pulled more survivors from collapsed buildings Sunday, days after a powerful magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit the country's east. Rescued survivors wept with gratitude for their efforts.
Turkish authorities said the death toll rose to at least 38 people from the magnitude 6.8 earthquake that struck Friday night.
Turkish television showed Ayse Yildiz, 35, and her 2-year-old daughter Yusra being dragged out of the rubble of a collapsed apartment building in the city of Elazig. They had been trapped for 28 hours.
The quake also injured over 1,600 people but at least 45 survivors have been pulled alive from the rubble so far, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference Sunday in Istanbul.
More than 780 aftershocks rocked the region as over 3,500 rescue experts scrambled through wrecked buildings to reach survivors, working around the clock. Rescue teams concentrated their efforts in the city's Mustafa Pasa neighborhood and the nearby town of Sivrice.
One rescued couple was reunited with a Syrian student who had helped to dig them out of their collapsed home with his hands.
“He is our hero and angel,” a weeping Dudane Aydin said of Mahmud al Osman in an interview on Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency.
Her husband Zulkuf added: “When I saw the light of Mahmud's phone, we started shouting for help. Then we knew we would get out."
He said Mahmud helped him out but when the student tried to rescue his wife her leg was trapped by debris.
“Some locals held Mahmud by the legs and stretching towards my wife he worked to save her. After saving my wife, he tried to help others," the man said.
As overnight temperatures dropped to -5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit), emergency teams set up more than 9,500 tents for displaced residents and distributed 17,000 hot meals.
The agency said 76 buildings were destroyed and more than 1,000 were damaged by the quake. Unmanned aerial drones were being used to survey damaged neighborhoods and coordinate rescue efforts.
The Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency said 20 of the aftershocks measured magnitude 4.0 or above, including a magnitude 4.3 quake that hit the neighboring province of Malatya on Sunday morning,
Erdogan said every effort was being made to find survivors and promised to house displaced residents as soon as possible.
“Turkey has begun to heal the wounds of this great disaster in unity, togetherness and coming together,” he said.
At least 104 people were receiving hospital treatment after the quake, 13 of them in intensive care, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu promised financial help for the victims of the quake. He then attended the funeral of five members of the same family — a married couple, their daughter and two grandchildren — with other ministers and officials. The 12-year-old boy was buried in the same coffin as his baby sister.
“You arrived two months ago. I wish you had stayed a little longer,” the children's father, Serhat Aslan, said of his daughter.
On Saturday, the president visited the disaster zone to inspect the rescue operation, meet with injured people in the hospital and attend the funeral of a mother and son.
Erdogan also condemned what he called a “smear campaign” on social media by those questioning the Turkish government’s preparations for earthquakes. A prosecutor in Ankara has opened an investigation into social media posts about Friday's quake.
Earthquakes are frequent in Turkey, which sits atop two major fault lines.
Across Turkey, there was an outpouring of support for the quake victims. Some soccer clubs announced they would donate the receipts of their weekend matches while fans of the Fenerbahce soccer club threw scarves and hats on to the field during a game in Istanbul, chanting “Cold Elazig, Fenerbahce is with you!”
Quake victims were taking refugee in tents, mosques, schools, sports halls and student dormitories. Authorities warned people not to return to homes that could be unsafe.
A prison in Adiyaman, 110 kilometers (70 miles) southwest of the epicenter, was evacuated due to quake damages, with more than 800 prisoners transferred to nearby jails.
Friday’s main quake hit at 8:55 p.m in the city that lies 565 kilometers (350 miles) east of Ankara. It's not the first time that Elazig has seen a fatal quake — a magnitude 6.0 earthquake killed 51 people there in 2010.
Turkey's worst quake in decades came in 1999, when a pair of strong earthquakes struck northwest Turkey, killing around 18,000 people.