A magnitude-7.2 earthquake struck eastern Turkey on Sunday, killing scores of people and sparking widespread panic as it collapsed dozens of buildings into piles of twisted steel and chunks of concrete.
Tens of thousands of residents fled into the streets running, screaming and trying to reach relatives on cellphones. As the full extent of the damage became clear, desperate survivors dug into the rubble with their bare hands, trying to rescue the trapped and the injured. The Interior Minister put the death toll so far at 217.
Turkey's state-run television TRT said a group of inmates escaped from a prison after the earthquake struck. It gave no other detail and it was not immediately known how many had fled.
"My wife and child are inside! My 4-month-old baby is inside!" CNN-Turk television showed one young man sobbing outside a collapsed building in Van, the provincial capital.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said people were still trapped under rubble, he said, without citing any estimates.
Turkish scientists estimated that up to 1,000 people could already be dead. The figures appear to be based on the magnitude of the earthquake and casualty figures from past quakes. Officials said it could be some time before the actual death toll from this quake is known.
The hardest hit was Ercis, a city of 75,000 close to the Iranian border, which lies on the Ercis Fault in one of Turkey's most earthquake-prone zones. Van, about 55 miles to the south, also sustained substantial damage.
Up to 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.
Hundreds of injured people were treated at the state hospital in Ercis, NTV television said. Survivors in Ercis complained of a lack of heavy machinery to remove chunks of cement floors that pancaked onto each other.
"There are so many dead. Several buildings have collapsed. There is too much destruction," Ercis Mayor Zulfikar Arapoglu told NTV. "We need urgent aid. We need medics."
Erdogan was reportedly on his way to visit the quake zone.
In Van, terrified residents spilled into the streets screaming. Rescue workers and residents scrambled, using only their hands and basic shovels, to save those who were trapped.
Residents sobbed outside the ruins of one flattened eight-story building, hoping that missing relatives would be rescued.
Witnesses said eight people were pulled from the rubble, but frequent aftershocks were hampering search efforts, CNN-Turk reported. One teenage girl was pulled out of the building by the late evening. Rescuers tied steel rods around large concrete slabs which they then lifted with heavy machinery, Dogan news agency video footage showed.
Residents in Van and Ercis lit camp fires, preparing to spend the night outdoors.
U.S. scientists recorded eight aftershocks within three hours of the quake, including two with a magnitude of 5.6. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was relatively shallow, just over 12 miles below the surface. In general, the shallower an earthquake the greater the potential for destruction.
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.
Nazmi Gur, a legislator from Van, was at his nephew's funeral when the quake struck. The funeral ceremony was cut short and he rushed back to help with rescues.
"At least six buildings had collapsed. We managed to rescue a few people, but I saw at least five bodies," Gur told The Associated Press by telephone. "There is no coordinated rescue at the moment, everyone is doing what they can."
"It was such a powerful temblor. It lasted for such a long time," Gur said.
"(Now) there is no electricity, there is no heating, everyone is outside in the cold."
Many residents fled Van to seek shelter with relatives in nearby villages.
"I am taking my family to our village, our house was fine but there were cracks in our office building," Sahabettin Ozer, 47, said by telephone as he drove to the village of Muradiye.
NTV said Van's airport was damaged and planes were being diverted to neighboring cities.
Authorities had no information yet on remote villages but the governor was touring the region by helicopter and the government sent in tents, field kitchens and blankets. Some in Ercis reported shortages of bread, Turkey's staple food, due to damages to bakeries.
Houses also collapsed in the province of Bitlis, where an 8-year-old girl was killed, authorities said, and the quake toppled the minarets of two mosques in the nearby province of Mus.
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.
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 the country's most earthquake-prone region.
The Kandilli observatory, Turkey's main seismography center, said Sunday's 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.
The earthquake also shook buildings in neighboring Armenia and Iran.
In the Armenian capital of Yerevan, 100 miles 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.
Sunday's quake caused panic among residents in several Iranian towns close to the Turkish border, and cut phone links and caused cracks in buildings in the city of Chaldoran, Iranian state TV reported. The quake was also felt in the northeastern Iranian towns of Salmas, Maku, Khoi but no damage was immediately reported.
U.S. leaders conveyed their condolences to the families of the victims and offered assistance.
"We stand shoulder to shoulder with our Turkish ally in this difficult time, and are ready to assist the Turkish authorities," President Obama said.
Israel also offered humanitarian assistance 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 for 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 more than 40,000 people if a major earthquake struck the city.
NPR's Peter Kenyon contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press
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