Dozens of rescue workers searched the area for additional survivors until about 1 a.m., then resumed the search on Wednesday morning in near-blizzard conditions. At about noon Wednesday, a second avalanche trapped the rescue teams, killing 33 people, the disaster agency said.
Footage of the scene that was broadcast on Turkish television throughout the day Wednesday showed rescue workers toiling in miserable conditions, as wind lashed a mountain and a heavy snow fell. There was an outpouring of sympathy for the victims on social media as Turkey grappled with its second deadly disaster in less than two weeks. Last month, 41 people were killed and hundreds were injured after a powerful earthquake struck the central Elazig province.
There were actually two avalanches on Tuesday, according to Bahattin Karagulle, a plow driver who said he survived the disaster and spoke to Turkey’s Sabah newspaper. Karagulle said he had been plowing the highway during an intense storm and a “sudden” avalanche hit. Shortly afterward, he saw a minibus driver trying to attach chains to his tires.
He said he warned the minibus driver not to advance any further, but the driver asked Karagulle to keep plowing, so the driver and the passengers, who included children, could return to their homes.
“Just as I started to operate the machine the second avalanche hit. I found myself under the snow. I broke the glass with the handle of a hammer. I searched for the minibus but I couldn’t find it.”
The death toll rose throughout the day on Wednesday after the avalanche buried the rescue workers. Early reports said the dead included eight law enforcement officers, a firefighter, three civilian guards and at least nine civilians. The television footage showed a chaotic rescue effort at the foot of a hill, where armored vehicles sat overturned and strewn about. Dazed men were brought to ambulances. Rescue teams probed the deep snow with long poles and struggled with ropes to climb the hill.
“We know there are still people under the avalanche, but we cannot make out for certain how many there are,” Mehmet Emin Bilmez, the governor of Van, told Turkish broadcaster TRT.
Zeynep Karatas contributed to this report.