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Rescuers find children trapped in quake's rubble

Friday, May 2, 2003

CELTIKSUYU, Turkey -- Listening for small voices, rescuers early Friday searched for dozens of children buried in the rubble of their dormitory after an earthquake struck southeastern Turkey. At least 100 people were killed and 1,000 injured.

Search teams working all day Thursday and into the early hours Friday were in contact with four of the children, state-owned TRT television reported from the scene. But there was little sign of 80 other children trapped in the collapsed four-story building.

Some of the parents were giving up hope. Cevriye Bartir, the mother of missing 15-year-old Sinan, sat on the step of a fire truck wailing, "My dead son, let me be sacrificed instead."

The 198 students in the dorm, ages 7 to 16, were asleep when the tremor hit early Thursday morning and collapsed the building. At least 21 were killed, along with a teacher. But 93 others were pulled out alive.

Steel bunk beds and steel closets helped hold up some of the walls of the school, saving many lives, rescuers said.

Soldiers, rescuers and ordinary citizens lifted huge concrete slabs with cranes and jackhammers in a search for survivors. Some just used their bare hands.

Every now and then, noisy equipment was turned off to allow rescuers to listen for voices. Dogs also sniffed for survivors.

The quake was centered just outside Bingol, a city of 250,000 in a largely rural area mostly inhabited by Kurds. The school was intended for the children of poor farmers from villages that have no schools.

Relatives rushed toward soldiers every time a rescued child was carried out on a stretcher.

"Oh my God! Oh my God! My son is lost, he is lost, he is lost! I cannot take the pain any more!" cried out Sefika Celik, whose 14-year-old son Alican was trapped in the debris.

Learn from lessons past

Many students were being treated for their injuries on mattresses laid out near the flattened building. Naim Gencgul, a 15-year-old boy, was pulled out of the rubble with a broken arm.

"The whole building was on top of me. We all started screaming," he said.

In Bingol, a bridge and at least 25 buildings collapsed, Mayor Feyzullah Karaaslan said. Damage could be seen throughout the city, where the streets were filled with terrified residents.

Many said that officials had not learned any lessons from past earthquakes because shoddily constructed buildings like the dormitory were allowed to stand in the quake-prone region.

Thousands of buildings collapsed when two massive earthquakes struck western Turkey in 1999 and killed about 18,000 people.

"This building is made out of dirt," said Remzi Sonmez as he stood in front of the collapsed dormitory where his 8-year-old son Ilhami was trapped. "If they had spent more money it would not have happened. Everyone is going to die, but this shouldn't be because someone is using cheap material on our children's school."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who traveled to the region Thursday, said about 100 people were killed in the quake. He said the government would investigate those responsible for the dormitory's construction.

"The guilty will be prosecuted," he said.

Some Cabinet ministers said politicians had to accept part of the responsibility for the building's collapse.

"We are responsible of the deaths and we need to take measures," Culture Minister Erkan Mumcu said. Earthquakes happen all around the world, "but no country in the world loses as many people to quakes as Turkey."

"Our biggest mistake is that we have a very bad memory. We forget disasters easily," said Guldal Aksit, the minister responsible for family affairs.

More than 200 aftershocks hit the region, for years the scene of fierce fighting between the Turkish army and Kurdish autonomy-seeking rebels.

Doctors at Bingol's state hospital appealed for help to deal with the crisis. The hospital was damaged in the quake and scores of injured were being treated outside.

The mayor said the city also needed more large tents. The Red Crescent sent 2,100 tents, 13,000 blankets, food as well as mobile kitchens, generators, ambulances. Soldiers, emergency workers and mountaineers with rescue experience were also headed to the area.


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