ANKARA, Turkey -- Some 3,000 troops joined rescue workers in the search for trapped victims following a powerful earthquake in northeast Turkey that killed at least 400 people, reports from the area said Saturday.
Thousands of people spent the night in below-freezing temperatures following the earthquake in the city of Erzincan.
The quake, measuring between 6.2 and 6.8 on the Richter scale, struck the city of some 150,000 people about 350 miles east of the capital Ankara at 7:19 p.m. Friday.
Hundreds of people were believed to be trapped alive under the rubble. The sound of cries and moaning could be heard through the night, witnesses said. By early Saturday, some 200 people were dug out alive.
Officials said they could not provide precise casualty figures, but the deputy governor of Erzincan, Mehmet Umal, said at least 400 died.
He said tremors rocked the area through the night, and that earlier rescue operations were hampered by the darkness.
According to the Anatolian News Agency, as much as a quarter of the town was destroyed by the quake and many people were still buried in the debris of collapsed buildings.
One witness, in a taxi when the quake struck, reported seeing houses crumbling all around him. State radio and television reports said two- thirds of the houses in the city were damaged or destroyed, and the center of the city was flattened.
A young woman survivor, who told reporters she was trapped for several hours after a pillar fell on her leg, said the earthquake 'seemed to have lasted for a very long time.' While being taken to hospital, she saw many houses and hotels collapsed.
Another young women who crawled out alive told reporters: 'We were sitting on the fourth floor' when the earthquake struck. Everything went dark, and 'the next thing I knew when I awoke, I was on the first floor,' still sitting on a couch.
Among the victims believed trapped under the rubble were 60 young student nurses in the dormitory of the local medical training center.
Officials of the Red Crescent relief organization said nine villages near Erzincan were also believed to have been hit, but reports from the rural areas were unavailable.
Roads were split and damaged in several places, making it difficult to get to the area from outside, and telephone lines were cut. First reports of the disaster reached Ankara and nearby cities more than three hours after the quake struck.
Erzincan's power system was heavily damaged and authorities were afraid to turn the power on again for fear of starting fires.
Red Crescent workers and army units moved slowly through the dark to get to the city, and hundreds of people from nearby towns also converged on the scene to help in the rescue effort. Witnesses said some people tried to remove rubble with their bare hands.
The first group of survivors reached the nearby town of Erzurum in the early hours of the morning Saturday.
Prime Minister Sulayman Demirel, who arrived in the devastated city early Saturday, described the scene as 'tragic,' and pledged his government would 'try to heal the wounds of this tragedy with all its might.' President Turgut Ozal also flew to Erzincan.
People from Ankara and other cities who had family members and relatives in Erzincan crammed bus terminals to try to get to the city. Long distance bus operators said they had put extra vehicles on the routes to the city.
Health Minister Yildirim Aktuna said rescue and medical aid were being sent to the area by helicopter. The Red Crescent began moving 150 tons of relief aid, including medicine, blankets and tents, to the scene of the disaster.
Erzincan was the scene of Turkey's worst-ever earthquake in 1939, when 32,900 people were killed.