The death toll from the massive earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on Monday climbed above 15,000 by Wednesday, according to authorities, as rescuers raced to save survivors trapped under debris in freezing weather.
Officials and medics said 12,391 people had died in Turkey and 2,992 in Syria from Monday’s 7.8-magnitude tremor, bringing the confirmed total to 15,383. Tens of thousands more were injured.
Rescue teams in Turkey and Syria have been searching for signs of life from an untold number of people trapped in the rubble. Teams from more than two dozen countries, including Israel, have joined tens of thousands of local emergency personnel in the effort. But the scale of destruction from the quake and its powerful aftershocks was so immense and spread over such a wide area that many people were still awaiting help.
Experts said the survival window for those trapped under the rubble or otherwise unable to obtain basic necessities was closing rapidly. At the same time, they said it was too soon to abandon hope.
“The first 72 hours are considered to be critical,” said Steven Godby, a natural hazards expert at Nottingham Trent University in England. “The survival ratio on average within 24 hours is 74%, after 72 hours it is 22% and by the fifth day it is 6%.”
Rescuers at times used excavators or picked gingerly through debris. It was not clear how many people might still be trapped.
Stories of rescues continued to provide hope that some people still trapped might be found alive. A crying newborn still connected by the umbilical cord to her deceased mother was rescued Monday in Syria. In Turkey’s Kahramanmaras, rescuers pulled a three-year-old boy from the rubble, and teams sent by the Israeli military saved at least four people, including a two-year-old boy.
But David Alexander, a professor of emergency planning and management at University College London, said data from past earthquakes suggested the likelihood of survival was now slim, particularly for seriously injured individuals.
“Statistically, today is the day when we’re going to stop finding people,” he said on Wednesday. “That doesn’t mean we should stop searching.”
Alexander cautioned that the final death toll may not be known for weeks because of the sheer amount of rubble.
The earthquake’s toll has already outstripped that of a 7.8-magnitude quake in Nepal in 2015, when 8,800 died. A 2011 earthquake in Japan triggered a tsunami, killing nearly 20,000 people.
Many of those who survived this week’s quake lost their homes and were forced to sleep in cars, government shelters, or outdoors amid rain and snowfall in some areas.
“We don’t have a tent, we don’t have a heating stove, we don’t have anything. Our children are in bad shape,” Aysan Kurt, 27, said. “We did not die from hunger or the earthquake, but we will die freezing from the cold.”
Temperatures in the quake-stricken Turkish city of Gaziantep plunged to minus five degrees Celsius early Thursday but thousands of families spent the night in cars and makeshift tents — too scared or banned from returning to their homes.
Parents walked the streets of the city carrying their children in blankets because it was warmer than sitting in a tent.
“When we sit down, it is painful, and I fear for anyone who is trapped under the rubble in this,” said Melek Halici, who wrapped her two-year-old daughter in a blanket as they watched rescuers working late into the night.
“Eventually we will have to go to the tent, but I don’t want to,” she added. “I can’t bear the cold, but nor can I think about going back to our apartment.”
City authorities have barred thousands of residents from going back to apartment blocks that are considered at risk from aftershocks shaking the region each day.
‘Our children are freezing’
Around the Halicis, smoke from dozens of fires filled the night air. Supermarkets and other businesses gave wooden pallets to families to burn.
Some people have found sanctuary with neighbors or relatives. Some have left the region. But many have nowhere to go.
Gyms, mosques, schools and some stores have opened up at night. But beds are still at a premium and thousands spend the nights in cars with engines running to provide heat.
“I have no choice,” said Suleyman Yanik, as he sat with one child playing with his car steering wheel and his wife and another child asleep in the back seat.
“The smell is horrible, but we cannot go home,” he said.
Restaurant manager Burhan Cagdas said he had been sleeping in a car since Monday’s quake because of his family’s “psychological” opposition to returning home.
He was unsure how long they could hold out.
Many families have complained about the government’s handling of the quake relief operation.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted during a trip to the region Wednesday that there had been “shortcomings” but insisted that the scope of the disaster was too big for any government to handle.
Poor families who have been camping around Gaziantep’s 6th-century castle, badly damaged by the quake, said authorities have done nothing for them.
The families have built makeshift homes with tarpaulin and wood thrown away by others. “They could at least have given us some tents,” said Ahmet Huseyin.
“Our children are freezing,” added the 40-year-old father of five whose nearby house was virtually destroyed by the 7.8 magnitude tremor. “We have had to burn the park benches and even some of the children’s clothes. There was nothing else,” he said.
Some of the shelters did not even have the luxury of a tarpaulin to cover the entrance.
Emel Osman, a 14-year-old whose family fled Syria for Turkey seven years ago, said the authorities should have put up a tent, “at least for the children”.
Stones from the castle risk falling onto the park where the families have taken refuge. But they say they have no choice as they have no car and no alternative shelter.