GAZIANTEP, Turkey – Rescue teams dug through the rubble on Tuesday to find survivors of the most powerful and deadliest earthquake to hit Turkey and Syria in decades, in a vast and desperate search complicated by geography and geopolitics, cold and magnitude of the disaster.
The number of fatalities increased as attempts were made pull people out of metal, concrete and wooden graves where there used to be apartments and office buildings. According to authorities, at least 11,000 people have died.
The teams found reasons for hope, since they rescued more than 8,000 people in Turkey alone. But they were also working against the clock, as temperatures dropped below freezing. The survivors, many of them barefoot and in their nightclothes, huddled around the fires to keep warm.
Emergency personnel search for survivors at the site where a building collapsed after a strong earthquake in the Besni district of Turkey. (Necati Savas/EFE/EPA)
Rescue teams shoveled snowdrifts over the rubble looking for the injured and trapped. In Gaziantep, a Turkish city near the epicenter of Monday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake, four members of the same family were rescued with great effort, one by one. In northwestern Syria, residents found a crying baby in the rubbleapparently the sole survivor of a building collapse and having spent hours in the cold.
“We have to fight the weather and the earthquake at the same time”Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said, calling the quake a “disaster of the century.”
In Turkey, the rescue work spanned 10 provinces and hundreds of kilometres, from the sprawling ancient city of Gaziantep to rural towns and villages where roads became so bent that they were unusable. The Turkish navy sent ships with heavy machinery, blankets, generators and food, and the national emergency management agency dispatched more than 16,000 workers, 3,000 machines and 600 cranes to remove debris.
Many of the lifeguards were volunteers who had no other plan than to help where they could. “We are here out of conscience and because we are always on the side of the weak,” said Mehmet Bodur, 55, in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa.
“We are facing one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of our region”Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised address from the capital Ankara as he declared a three-month state of emergency in the affected provinces.
Turkish students studying in North Macedonia and volunteers collect humanitarian aid for the Turkish and Syrian people affected by the earthquake. (EFE/EPA/Georgi Licovski)
In Syria, where more than a decade of civil war had already created a humanitarian crisis, rescue efforts were hampered by the location of the quake zone, which includes land controlled by both government and opposition.
“People bring us corpses in their private cars”said Nehad Abdulmajeed, a doctor near the Syrian city of Idlib.
“We have cried for children who have lived through this war and are now dead for no reason,” he said.
“I thought maybe I had seen it all,” he added, “but these are the most tragic days I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
Syria cannot receive direct aid from many countries due to Western sanctions against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The only United Nations-approved passage for aid between Syria and Turkey – a lifeline for opposition-held areas in the north – was closed due to earthquake damage, UN officials said, poses serious logistical obstacles to relief efforts.
But hopes that aid could reach rebel-held areas by other routes were raised by a statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on Tuesday. Pleading for international support on Lebanese TVHe said his government was willing to allow aid for earthquake victims to enter all regions, as long as the aid did not reach armed terrorist groups.
Each problem seemed to be compounded by another. A large fire broke out in one of Turkey’s main ports on Tuesday, disrupting the arrival of supplies. An economic crisis had already been hitting many Turkish families, so resources were increasingly scarce for months before the earthquake.
In Adana, about 160 kilometers from the epicenter in southern Turkey, the terrain and the weather had delayed the arrival in the city of many teams rescue. Snow had closed the mountain highway connecting Adana with eastern Turkey, forcing teams to take the longer coastal route.
In Gaziantep, public spaces were filled with people whose houses had collapsed, in whole or in part, and others who had fled because they were still shocked or scared that their homes were no longer safe.
They camped and tried to keep warm in the drifts of snow. Some families took turns in their cars, just to get out of the wind. Others put up simple tents, hooking blue tarps to the fences. In some streets, crowds gathered around oil drums where men built wood fires, smoking and spreading out their bare palms to keep warm.
A group of women warm themselves by a bonfire outside their collapsed building in the town of Kahramanmaras, Turkey. (Abir Sultan/EFE/EPA)
In Turkey, at least 150,000 people have been left homeless by the earthquake and its aftershocks, which caused the collapse of some 6,000 buildings, an official from the International Federation of the Red Cross told reporters in Geneva. About 23 million people in the region probably needed help, World Health Organization officials said, citing figures provided by the Pacific Disaster Center, a disaster management organization.
Dr. Rick Brennan, regional director of emergencies for the WHO office for the Eastern Mediterranean, stated in an interview that there was a “considerable” risk of further aftershocks. He said that due to poor water supply and sanitation infrastructure in some parts of Syria, the quake could exacerbate existing outbreaks of cholera and measles.
Erdogan’s declaration of a state of emergency raised some concern in Turkey; Turkish opponents and Western officials have accused him of pushing the country toward autocracy for decades in power. But analysts said the decision made sense, given the scale of the catastrophe. The emergency period will end shortly before the May elections, elections that could depend on Erdogan’s response to the earthquake.
Time was running out for the many people believed to be still trapped in the collapsed buildings.
The death toll is expected to continue rising in the “thousands”WHO officials said Tuesday. As of late Tuesday, the death toll in Turkey stood at 5,434, according to the National Emergency Management Agency, AFAD. In Syria, at least 1,872 people have died, according to the Ministry of Health and the White Helmets aid group.