With little hope of finding more people alive a week after the earthquake that rocked eastern Turkey, focus shifted Saturday to the plight of survivors stuck in tents in freezing rain and snow.
The United States was the latest country to offer help, with the Pentagon saying Friday that U.S. military aircraft were to begin delivering relief supplies from U.S. military bases in Europe.
While no official announcement was made that the search for survivors was over, residents said most emergency rescue teams had left this town of 75,000, the worst-hit in the October 23 quake.
The last survivor in Ercis was found at dawn Friday when rescuers saved a 12-year-old boy, Ferhat Tokay, who had spent 108 hours trapped under the rubble of one of scores of buildings that collapsed here.
Television footage showed a rescue worker shading Ferhat’s eyes as he was brought to the surface to protect him from the floodlights used by the emergency teams.
In all, 187 people have been pulled out alive from debris after the 7.2 magnitude quake ripped through eastern Van province. An official toll Friday night said 576 people had died and 2,608 were wounded in the disaster.
“It is unlikely, barring some huge miracle, that anyone else will be found alive in the debris in such cold weather,” a Turkish doctor was quoted as saying on CNN-Turk television.
On Saturday, teams started clearing rubble in Ercis, CNN-Turk and NTV reported, saying rescue workers were now focused on recovering bodies still trapped under the masses of iron and concrete.
Already on Thursday, bulldozers had started removing rubble in the regional capital of Van, as hope faded of finding anyone else alive.
As of Friday, Turkish soldiers were accompanying humanitarian trucks carrying aid to the region after angry survivors − amid complaints aid was not arriving fast enough − looted supplies from Turkish Red Crescent trucks.
The quake, Turkey’s worst in years, also killed a lot of livestock, one of the region’s main sources of income.
Fresh snow and rain in Van province ensured more misery for survivors camping out in tents fearing more building collapses in aftershocks, with some camps turned into mud baths.
A group of comedians from Istanbul tried to lighten the mood in Ercis, as they brought a cake to little Mouhammed Kaya to celebrate his third birthday with his family inside a chilly tent.
Saturday marked the 88th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish republic on October 29, 1923, but celebrations − including traditional military parades − were called off because of the disaster.
Secular groups criticized the decision by the Islamist-rooted government of President Abdullah Gul, charging it was using the quake as a pretext to ignore the secular roots of the modern state that emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman empire.
“Why don’t you cancel the republic while you’re at it, too!” said an editorial in the Vatan newspaper.
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said Friday that all the urgent needs of quake survivors would be met by Saturday evening.
Turkey has accepted help from dozens of countries, including Israel and Armenia, both states with which it has frosty relations.
With Islam’s Eid al-Adha festival of sacrifice coming on November 6, the Turkish Red Crescent would distribute the meat of 500 cattle in the region, Anatolia news agency reported.
More than 5,000 buildings collapsed across the province, reviving debate over the construction sector.
In a speech, President Gul slammed what he called the lack of respect for construction codes and the use of materials of “bad quality”.
Engineers from Istanbul University have said concrete mixed with too much sand taken from riverbeds had contributed to making housing units unstable.
“The earthquake in Van reminds us that our country is prone to quakes, and has also shown that such destruction is caused by negligence and irresponsibility,” Gul said.