ISTANBUL – Flash floods roared across a major highway and a commercial district in Istanbul on Wednesday, killing at least 20 people and forcing dozens to scramble onto the roofs of cars and trucks. Some of the dead drowned inside their vehicles.
Fueled by the worst rain in 80 years, waters rose up to six feet high in the city's Ikitelli district, cutting off the route to Istanbul's main airport and the highway to Greece and Bulgaria on the European side of the sprawling city.
Gov. Muammer Guler said 20 people were killed, eight people were missing and 20 others were injured. The deaths raised the overall toll in floods that have slammed northwestern Turkey since late Monday to at least 28.
The surging water flipped trucks, cars and buses over like matchsticks, crushing them into piles of debris. Trapped motorists desperately climbed out of their vehicles, hoping to be rescued. Helicopters lifted stranded people off rooftops, while inflatable boats fought the swirling waters to go from vehicle to vehicle, picking up survivors.
Some rescuers used nothing but ropes to drag people across the torrent to safety.
Mithat Demirata was traveling in Ikitelli when the waters suddenly rose.
"I grabbed my daughter, left my car and escaped for my life," he told Associated Press Television News. "I am sure many people were not able to save their lives."
"The waters came suddenly and flowed over my car," said Suleyman Kucukkaya, another witness. "We were dragged away up to some barriers. There were cars in front of us and behind us."
Hikmet Cakmak, Istanbul's deputy governor, described the scene at Ikitelli as a "disaster" and said four helicopters and eight boats were sent to help in the rescues.
Istanbul firefighters recovered seven bodies Wednesday at a truck parking lot in Ikitelli, Anatolia reported. The parking lot was littered with upended trucks.
Seven other bodies were found outside a textiles factory in the nearby district of Halkali. Guler said the victims were female factory workers who drowned, trapped inside a van that had just brought them to work. Television footage showed seven bodies covered in white sheets, placed in a row.
"There was no escape other than the back door and it was stuck by the pressure of the flooding water," Guler said. "This is a result of a great negligence."
He did not give a breakdown for the six other deaths.
Two people died Tuesday in Istanbul's Catalca suburb and six people were swept away by floods in Saray, in Tekirdag province.
Flights continued at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport, an official said, but many passengers could not reach the airport or leave it once they arrived.
The heavy rains caused two Istanbul streams to overflow, also inundating hundreds of homes and workplaces. The state-run Anatolia news agency said one building collapsed, but there were no reports of any casualties.
Rapid population growth — fueled by decades of emigration from Turkey's impoverished rural regions — has meant that the metropolis of 15 million has developed without adequate infrastructure and poor city planning.
"The rains are not able to reach the sea through natural channels due to skewed and unplanned development and inadequate infrastructure," said Filiz Demirayak, the World Wildlife Fund's Turkey director.
Government officials blamed illegal construction in riverbeds in Istanbul for the heavy damage and casualties.
"There is huge damage to infrastructure," said Procurement Minister Mustafa Demir. "We need to be more careful when designing infrastructure and cities."
The Dogan news agency showed dramatic footage of a man being rescued from atop an overturned van. He let himself go in the swirling water and swam toward four men with ropes who caught him and pulled him out of the flood.
Television showed rescuers in an inflatable boat assisting another man stranded inside a van. A military helicopter lifted around 10 people from the top of a roof.
A thick trail of mud was left as waters later receded in parts of Ikitelli.
Police were deployed to prevent people from looting factories or shops affected by the floods, but an Associated Press photographer saw people pillaging goods from abandoned vehicles.
A group of men were seen looting rifles from an overturned cargo truck on a highway, according to private NTV television. Police soon arrived but some looters had already left.
Meteorology Chief Mehmet Caglar described the downpour that hit Istanbul as "once in a century." More rains were forecast for northwestern Turkey throughout the week.