Survivors of Tuesday's devastating earthquake in northwestern Turkey clawed through the concrete and brick debris of hundreds of flattened buildings today in a desperate search for people trapped in the rubble, even as the death toll continued to mount.

The government's official casualty count rose to more than 4,000 killed and 18,000 injured. But more than 36 hours after the earthquake struck, official rescue and recovery efforts were still just getting underway in this ravaged port city and more than a dozen other hard-hit towns, and the government said it expects the death toll to climb. Most residents of the region were sleeping when the quake occurred and had little opportunity to escape; thousands are still missing.

The earthquake, which scientists say registered 7.4 on the Richter scale of seismic disturbance, was the most powerful to hit Turkey in decades. It destroyed or damaged thousands of buildings across a 400-mile area from the northwest through the historic city of Istanbul to communities near Ankara, the capital. But the greatest destruction appeared to be in the heavily populated industrial belt just east of the Sea of Marmara.

Fires in storage tanks at Turkey's largest oil refinery, in the city of Izmit, continued to rage out of control. As concerns rose among government officials about the possibility of an explosion at an adjacent ammonia storage depot, residents of the surrounding area were evacuated before they could finish searching the rubble for trapped survivors.

The loss of electricity throughout the region prevented the plant's managers from using sea-water pumps to assist the firefighting effort, but U.S. planes dropped flame-retardant chemicals on the site several times today, and German, French and other foreign firefighting aircraft were headed to the area.

As the Turkish people began to grasp the extent of the damage, many residents of the earthquake zone turned their wrath on local and national officials. They alleged that the government not only failed to ensure that buildings had been adequately inspected for resistance to earthquake damage but also failed to stockpile food and rescue equipment, or to otherwise prepare for disaster along one of the world's most active geological fault lines.

They also accused local officials of failing to provide meaningful assistance to people anxiously attempting to find their relatives. "No matter how much aid is put in, how are they going to lift all that rubble?" said Nazan Buyukbayraktar, as her husband used a pickax and shovel to search through a 25-foot-high pile of collapsed concrete for a 13-year-old niece, Ebreu. "No one's been coordinating any effort. We're digging into the concrete with our hands. I have no tears left."

Golcuk, a city of 75,000 on the Sea of Marmara, was one of the closest cities to the quake's epicenter. Today, it is a landscape of ruin, anger and grief, where the sound of ambulance sirens competes with the wails of women, the cries of babies, the clank of bulldozers and the whirr of army and television helicopters.

Most rescues in the city were carried out by neighbors or search teams sent by other countries, while a dozen police officers sat in front of the central police station eating watermelon and sailors went on an afternoon jog at the large Turkish navy base here.

Dozens of six-story apartment buildings here, as elsewhere in the region, plummeted to the ground in less than a minute after the quake struck at 3:02 a.m. Tuesday (8:02 p.m. EDT Monday). Some buildings collapsed on top of themselves, while others slid into neighboring buildings or surrounding streets. The balconies of some structures are now stacked like logs on the ground, and the concrete slabs that separated floors look like pieces of bread slapped together in haste.

Many buildings that are still standing lean precariously, leaving the streets lined with structures that look like listing ships about to sink. At the waterfront, some buildings have done just that, as the force of the quake sheared off pylons holding up homes, commercial structures and piers.

The streets are filled with the walking wounded, including many with bandaged heads. Most residents now live and sleep in the street, unwilling to struggle for access to dwindling stocks of food and water, or even to return to apartments that seem intact for fear that aftershocks may cause them to crumble.

Health Minister Osman Durmus said after touring Golcuk and other cities that it will take another 15 days for the government to count the dead. He confirmed that officials in the region had allowed contractors to build dangerously weak housing but pledged that "now we will intervene and take this power away."

The newspaper Hurriyet was even more blunt, running a front-page banner headline that charged: "Murderers!"

"It is unbelievable that those who govern the earthquake-prone region we live in could be so unprepared," the Turkish Human Rights Association said in a statement. The Istanbul Chamber of Engineers and Architects agreed: "Since 1992, we have emphasized the risk to the Istanbul area of an earthquake every 100 years. . . . We now see how unheeded our warnings went."

Irfan Dermircelik, the civil defense chief in Golcuk, predicted that after the debris is searched more intensively, more than 3,000 fatalities will be confirmed in this city alone. Senol Erguney, the chief physician at Golcuk State Hospital, said that 250 deaths had been recorded so far, while an estimated 500 people were plucked alive from the rubble today.

Most of the survivors were listed in serious condition, suffering from internal bleeding, broken bones and head trauma, he said. Moreover, the hospital's work has been hampered by the absence of an X-ray machine and a "good generator" to keep it powered until electricity is restored, Erguney said. But at least they were rescued, he said, adding, "Yesterday, we lost a lot of lives."

Bedihan Cerrahoglu, 5, and Ninet Apak, 60, were two of the lucky ones. Cerrahoglu was extracted by rescuers from a crushed apartment building shortly after they found his mother's body. He has not yet been told of her fate.

Apak was plucked from a pile of debris by a rescue team sent by Russia and praised here for its energy and skill. Part of an influx of more than a thousand foreign search and rescue experts, the Russians are racing against the clock, aware that few trapped earthquake victims are likely to remain alive more than three days.

Berat Keskin spent the day digging in the hot sun for his mother, using only a flashlight, a shovel and a small pickax to try to break a hole in the collapsed concrete slabs of her building on Albay Burak Street.

"There are loads of people in there. Alive? God knows," said Yuksel Sirit, a colleague in the excavation attempt.

A few doors away at another pile of rubble, Sezer Ayaydin, a 38-year-old taxi fleet owner, had organized a more robust search effort with a power drill, an electrical generator and other equipment from his office.

"There are no authorities, no nothing," Osman Uzum said. "Yesterday, many people screamed from inside, and today we hear no voices."

Many residents of Golcuk complained that the government's rescue efforts are focused solely on the Turkish navy base here, where an estimated 120 men are reportedly still trapped inside a collapsed, five-story barracks. The base has been off-limits to reporters for two days.

Correspondent Lee Hockstader contributed to this report.

Death and Devastation

Damage

* Tens of thousands of homes and other buildings destroyed across a 400-mile stretch from the far northwest to near Ankara.

* One main bridge on the main highway connecting Istanbul and Ankara destroyed; other bridges damaged, highways and power stations damaged. The country's principal oil refinery in Izmit on fire.

SOURCE: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Turkish Quakes Ranked

Eleven major quakes have hit Turkey in the past 60 years, killing tens of thousands. These were are the most devastating:

Date Area hit Magnitude Death toll

1939, Dec. 26 Erzincan 8.0 40,000

1999, Aug. 17 N.W. Turkey 7.4 3,500+

1966, Aug. 19 Izmit area 7.1 2,520

1975, Sept. 6 Lice area 6.7 2,300

1953, March 18 N.W. Turkey 7.2 1,200

1970, March 28 W. Turkey 7.3 1,100

SOURCE: World Almanac

QUAKE CONTACTS

People seeking information about relatives in Turkey may contact the Turkish Embassy at (202) 612-6700. Callers should have their family's phone numbers and addresses in Turkey available. The embassy will fax the information to Turkish authorities trying to locate survivors of the earthquake.

With so many people scrambling to send aid, Turkish Americans yesterday formed the Turkish Relief Association to coordinate donations of beds, medical supplies and money. The toll-free number is 1-877-TURKEY9 (1-877-887-5399). Those interested in helping quake victims may also send e-mail to tra_usa@hotmail.com.

Financial donations may also be sent to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, 4100 Bigelow Blvd., Pittsburgh, Pa. 15213.

Other relief organizations offering assistance include the Holy Land Foundation (1-800-909-6822, hlf.org), Life for Relief and Development (1-800-827-3543, relief@aol.com), Mercy International USA (1-800-556-3729), the Islamic African Relief Agency (573-443-0166, iarausa@msn.com), Success Foundation (703-820-7199), and Global Relief Foundation (1-888-256-2532, talk2grf@aol.com).