Thirty-three people were killed on Wednesday when a second avalanche buried more than 50 personnel from search and rescue crews that had been combing an avalanche zone in eastern Turkey, where five bodies were recovered only one day earlier, Trend reports citing Daily Sabah.
Crews were looking for two people who went missing during Tuesday evening's avalanche on a road connecting the Van province to its Bahçesaray district. The Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), whose crews were at the scene after Tuesday's avalanche, announced that 53 others were injured in the second avalanche, which occurred around noon local time. AFAD's Van Director Osman Ucar was among the injured. Gülşen Orhan, a former lawmaker for Van who currently serves as a chief adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was among those who escaped the second avalanche with injuries.
The victims of the second avalanche include eight gendarmerie personnel, three village guards, three firefighters and nine civilians. More search and rescue teams were dispatched to the area, while snowfall and blizzards have hampered the efforts. Authorities said the death toll may rise.
The AFAD said in a statement that 59 search and rescue experts were deployed to the disaster zone and more crews from the AFAD and the gendarmerie were being airlifted to the area from Ankara to help in the rescue efforts. "Twenty-eight ambulances were also dispatched, and a mobile base station is being set up for communication," the AFAD statement said, as bad weather continues to limit cellphone reception in the area.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told reporters before leaving for Van that a minibus buried in the first avalanche was found some 5 meters below the pile of snow. "It is a rough terrain to use vehicles to clear the snow. Crews can work only using shovels and sticks," he said.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA), Van Gov. Mehmet Emin Bilmez warned that more avalanches could occur, cautioning locals to follow the instructions of the emergency personnel on site.
The first avalanche buried the passenger minibus and a snow-clearing vehicle in the area around 4:45 p.m. on Tuesday. The minibus was carrying passengers on a road between the province and its Bahçesaray district. Six people were rescued, while the driver of the snow-clearing vehicle managed to escape the avalanche at the last moment.
Authorities said some members of search and rescue crews managed to dig themselves out of the massive heap of snow, while efforts were underway to rescue others.
Winter conditions in eastern Turkey regularly hamper daily life. A large number of roads connecting remote areas to city centers in the region are currently closed due to heavy snowfall, while crews work around the clock to keep the roads clear.
Bahattin Karagulle, who survived the first avalanche and was hospitalized, recounted to AA the moments of the first avalanche. Karagulle, who was operating a snow-clearing vehicle, said he came across a minibus while heading to Bahçesaray and saw an avalanche piling up behind them. "There was a strong blizzard and zero visibility. I told the minibus driver to go back, but he told me to try again to clear the road. Just as I started to clear it, the avalanche hit and the vehicle rolled over to (the nearby) stream. I waited there for about half an hour and thought people in the minibus would come to rescue me. When no one came, I tried to get out myself. I managed to break the window and got out. I looked for the minibus but did not see it," he said. Karagülle then started walking to a nearby village and found another minibus, telling its occupants about the avalanche. "They took me to the hospital and alerted authorities," he said. "It was such a big avalanche. It hurtled my vehicle, which weighs 19 tons. I don't know what happened to the minibus if it hurtled my vehicle," he said.