Overwhelmed rescuers struggled to save people trapped under rubble as the death toll from the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria topped 5,000 on Tuesday. Desperation was mounting and the scale of the disaster hampered relief efforts.
The 7.8-magnitude quake — Turkey’s deadliest since 1999 — struck early Monday, toppling thousands of buildings, including many apartment blocks, destroying hospitals and leaving thousands injured or homeless in Turkish and Syrian cities.
In the Turkish city of Antioch near the Syrian border, where 10-storey buildings collapsed on the streets, Reuters journalists watched rescue efforts take place in one of dozens of piles of rubble.
The temperature was close to freezing while it was raining and there was no electricity or fuel in the city.
According to the Turkish authorities, some 13.5 million people have been affected in an area covering approximately 450 kilometres from Adana in the west to Diyarbakir in the east and 300 kilometres from Malatya in the north to Hatay in the south. In Syria, authorities have reported deaths as far south as Hama, about 100 kilometers from the epicenter.
In Turkey, the death toll rose to 3,419, Vice President Fuat Oktay said, adding that bad weather was making it difficult for aid to reach the regions.
In Syria, where the quake has caused more damage to infrastructure already devastated by 11 years of war, the death toll stands at just over 1,600, according to the government and a rescue service in the insurgent-controlled northwest.
The winter cold made it difficult to search for survivors throughout the night. A woman’s voice was heard asking for help under a pile of rubble in the southern province of Hatay. Nearby lay the lifeless body of a child.
Crying in the rain, a resident who gave his name as Deniz wrung his hands in despair.
“They make noise, but no one comes,” he says. “We are shattered, we are shattered. My god… They are screaming. They say, ‘Save us,’ but we can’t save them. How are we going to save them? There hasn’t been anyone since morning.”
Families slept in cars lined up on the streets.
Ayla, standing next to a pile of rubble where an eight-story building once stood, said she had driven Hatay from Gaziantep on Monday in search of her mother. Five or six members of Istanbul’s fire brigade worked among the ruins, a concrete and glass sandwich.
“There are no survivors yet. A stray dog came and barked at a certain time for a long time, I was afraid it was because of my mother. But it was someone else,” he explains.
“I turned on the lights of the car to help the rescue team. So far they have only taken out two bodies, no survivors.”
Ankara declared a “level 4 alarm” that requires international help, but not a state of emergency leading to mass mobilization of the army.
The Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) said 5,775 buildings had been destroyed by the quake, followed by 285 aftershocks, and 20,426 people had been injured.
“A TERRIFYING SCENE”
The World Health Organization was particularly concerned about areas in Turkey and Syria where no information had emerged since the quake, it said.
“Now is a race against time,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Every minute, every hour that passes, the chances of finding survivors alive decrease.”
In the Syrian city of Hama, Abdallah al-Dahan said funerals were taking place Tuesday for several families who perished.
“It’s a scary scene in every way,” Dahan said, reached by phone.
“In my whole life I have not seen anything like it, despite everything that has happened to us,” he added. Mosques had opened their doors to families whose homes had been damaged.
The death toll in Syrian government-controlled areas has risen to 812, state news agency SANA reported.
In the rebel-held northwest, the death toll topped 790, according to Syria’s civil defense, a rescue service known as the White Helmets and known for pulling people out of the rubble following government airstrikes.
“Our teams are making a lot of efforts, but they are unable to respond to the catastrophe and the large number of collapsed buildings,” said the group’s head, Raed al-Saleh.
A senior U.N. humanitarian official said fuel shortages and harsh winter weather were also creating obstacles to his response.
“The infrastructure is damaged, the roads we used to use for humanitarian work are damaged, we have to be creative to reach people… but we are working hard,” U.N. resident coordinator El-Mostafa Benlamlih told Reuters in a video conference interview from Damascus.
The quake was the largest recorded worldwide by the U.S. Geological Survey since one in the remote South Atlantic in August 2021.
Poor internet connections and damage to roads between some of Turkey’s worst-hit cities, home to millions of people, have hampered efforts to assess impact and plan aid.
With a close election scheduled for just three months from now, President Tayyip Erdogan’s government faces a probably multibillion-dollar reconstruction challenge just as it was stepping up its re-election campaign.
According to analysts, the economy, already weighed down by inflation of 58%, is expected to grow somewhat less than expected this year.