The whimper was barely audible and was growing fainter: "Save me. Please, save me."

Scores of men, many using their bare hands, clawed desperately at the mountain of rubble from a five-story apartment building in which 17-year-old Zekiye was trapped. Suddenly, wisps of her dust-covered hair were uncovered. Then, her panic-stricken face.

Amid comforting words from rescuers and onlookers, medical teams determined that Zekiye's left arm, pinned under a huge concrete slab, would have to be amputated to save her life.

It was a scene like hundreds of others today across this prosperous industrial city, which was at the epicenter of the massive earthquake that rocked western Turkey early this morning. Thousands of people were believed to have been buried, when row upon row of buildings crumpled as the earthquake struck at 3:02 this morning (8:02 p.m. EDT Monday), trapping many residents as they slept. The number of people killed in Izmit was estimated to be in the hundreds, with thousands injured, physicians said.

Some of the heaviest damage occurred in the low-income Cumhuriyet neighborhood, where scores of hopeful survivors gathered this afternoon around a collapsed seven-story apartment building that had housed more than 100 people. Only 15 had been pulled from the rubble alive.

"We know there are many more like her here," said Gurkan Acar, a local taxi driver who was pointing to the corpse of a young woman twisted beneath what must have been her bedroom ceiling and bed.

A stuffed panda, baby clothes and photographs of a young man in military uniform were scattered among the debris. Nearby, a young man in a blue shirt clutched a photo album and kept repeating: "If they are dead, I will kill myself. I will kill myself."

"It's his wife and two children; they're still under there," said a police officer at the scene.

At the local state-run hospital, hundreds of injured Izmit residents lay on bare, blood-covered stone floors, moaning for help. A handful of doctors gingerly picked their way through the casualties to find the most urgent cases. At least seven of the victims apparently died before they could be treated, their bodies covered with a film of gray, pulverized concrete.

Sevim Ozkan, a 31-year-old housewife, stared listlessly at a baby girl lying beside her, its tiny head swathed in a turban of bloodied gauze. Ozkan's face was purple and bloated. The bottom half of her left leg was missing. "They cut it off," she said hoarsely and began to weep. "My children, my husband, they are all dead now. Why did Allah do this to our family?"

"We've had at least 100 people die here so far," said Ismail Hicyilmaz, the hospital's chief surgeon. "I fear there will be many more. We have no staff, no electricity, no water. Did you ever wonder what hell would be like? Well, you've stepped right into it."

Throughout the day, powerful aftershocks continued to shake Izmit, a city of 500,000 on the eastern shore of the Sea of Marmara, 55 miles southeast of Istanbul. The shocks kept the panic level high and endangered the lives of volunteers searching for survivors.

Most of the destruction occurred in low-income areas, where many buildings were made of flimsy materials. Elsewhere in the city, a graceful 16th-century mosque was seriously damaged, its cupola caved in and one of its minarets slightly askew. There was little damage to government buildings or schools.

By midday, long lines had formed outside the handful of bakeries that had opened in the city center. Thousands of people camped outdoors, hundreds of them erecting makeshift shelters on the broad grassy median of Izmit's main street to protect themselves from the scorching August heat. Others stumbled around in a state of shock, many still in their underwear.

For some, pain rapidly changed to fury at the failure of the government to send rescue teams to their neighborhoods for at least nine hours after the earthquake. "All those politicians do is fill their pockets; they don't care a damn about us poor folk," said Veysi Savur, a middle-aged man with a blood-soaked Calvin Klein T-shirt wrapped around his head.

Savur was one of the few residents to escape from a collapsed building in Cumhuriyet. Describing the moment of the quake, Savur said: "It was like Judgment Day. There was this deep and long shudder. The ceiling became the ground, the ground the ceiling. I thought I was dead."

Turkey's Seismic Troubles

* Turkey has been shaken by 23 major earthquakes this century, an average of one every four years.

* Turkey lies just north of the line where major tectonic plates meet and push against one another, creating enormous pressure. This pressure builds up, causing the Earth to quake or even crack along the North Anatolian fault system that runs across northern Turkey.

* During a quake, the Earth north of the fault line slides laterally to the east while that to the south moves west.

SOURCE: U. S. Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Center