'It's like we woke up to hell'

Fears grow for untold numbers buried by Turkey-Syria earthquake, as toll tops 11,000

Rescuers battle time, freezing temperatures in race to save survivors trapped in rubble after devastating 7.8-magnitude quake; over 30 countries, including Israel, send aid

People try to reach survivors trapped under the debris of a collapsed building in Malatya, Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (AP/Emrah Gurel)
People try to reach survivors trapped under the debris of a collapsed building in Malatya, Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (AP/Emrah Gurel)

Rescuers raced against time Wednesday to pull survivors from the rubble before they succumbed to cold weather two days after an earthquake tore through southern Turkey and war-ravaged northern Syria. The death toll climbed above 11,000 and was expected to rise further, making the quake the deadliest in more than a decade.

The last two days have brought dramatic rescues, including small children emerging from mounds of debris more than 30 hours after Monday’s pre-dawn quake. But there was also widespread despair and growing anger at the slow pace of rescue efforts in some areas.

“It’s like we woke up to hell,” said Osman Can Taninmis, whose family members were still beneath the rubble in Hatay, Turkey’s hardest-hit province. “We can’t respond to absolutely anything. Help isn’t coming, can’t come. We can’t reach anyone at all. Everywhere is destroyed.”

In Syria, residents found a crying newborn still connected by the umbilical cord to her mother, who was dead. The baby was the only member of her family to survive a building collapse in the small town of Jinderis, relatives told The Associated Press.

Search teams from nearly 30 countries and aid pledges poured in, including from Israel, South Korea, Spain, Greece, Lebanon, and Germany. The United States, China, and the Gulf States have also dispatched help, and search teams, as well as relief supplies, have begun to arrive by airplane.

The European Union also mobilized search and rescue teams to help Turkey, while the bloc’s Copernicus satellite system has been activated to provide emergency mapping services. The European Commission is also helping neighboring Syria by funding humanitarian organizations supervising search and rescue operations.

A baby girl who was born under the rubble caused by an earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey receives treatment inside an incubator at a children’s hospital in the town of Afrin, Aleppo province, Syria, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. Residents in the northwest Syrian town discovered the crying infant, whose mother gave birth to her while buried underneath the rubble of a five-story apartment building leveled by this week’s devastating earthquake, relatives and a doctor say. (AP/Ghaith Alsayed)

But with the damage spread across several cities and towns — some isolated by Syria’s ongoing conflict — voices crying for help from within mounds of rubble fell silent.

Monday’s magnitude 7.8 quake and powerful aftershocks cut a swath of destruction that stretched hundreds of kilometers (miles) across southeastern Turkey and neighboring Syria. The shaking toppled thousands of buildings and heaped more misery on a region wracked by Syria’s 12-year civil war and refugee crisis.

Turkey is home to millions of refugees from the war. The affected area in Syria is divided between government-controlled territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, where millions rely on humanitarian aid to survive.

Unstable piles of metal and concrete made the search efforts perilous, while freezing temperatures made them ever more urgent, as worries grew about how long trapped survivors could last in the cold.
Snow swirled around rescuers in parts of Turkey.

Israel’s first delegation of 150 military rescue experts arrived in southern Turkey early Tuesday to begin rescue efforts in the Adana and Gaziantep areas.

Channel 12 reported Tuesday night that the Israeli experts rescued three people from the rubble, but it was not clear where.

Another Israel Defense Forces delegation of medical and logistics corps troops was set to depart for Turkey early Wednesday morning to establish a field hospital. The IDF said the delegation would comprise some 230 people, including search and rescue experts, military medics, and Health Ministry doctors, nurses, and paramedics.

‘A crisis on top of multiple crises’

The scale of the suffering — and the accompanying rescue effort — have been staggering.

Adelheid Marschang, a senior emergencies officer with the World Health Organization, said up to 23 million people could be affected in the entire quake-hit area, calling it a “crisis on top of multiple crises.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 13 million of the country’s 85 million people were affected, and he declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces. More than 8,000 people have been pulled from the debris in Turkey, and some 380,000 have taken refuge in government shelters or hotels, authorities said.

Rescue workers search for survivors on a collapsed building in Malatya, Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. Search teams and aid are pouring into Turkey and Syria as rescuers working in freezing temperatures dig through the remains of buildings flattened by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. (AP/Emrah Gurel)

But authorities faced criticism from residents of hard-hit Hatay, sandwiched between Syria and the Mediterranean Sea, who say rescue efforts have lagged. Erdogan’s handling of the crisis could weigh heavily on elections planned for May, and his office has already dismissed the criticism as disinformation.

Nurgul Atay told The Associated Press she could hear her mother’s voice beneath the rubble of a collapsed building in the Turkish city of Antakya, the capital of Hatay province. But rescuers did not have the heavy equipment needed to rescue her.

“If only we could lift the concrete slab, we’d be able to reach her,” she said. “My mother is 70 years old, she won’t be able to withstand this for long.”

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said 1,647 people were killed in Hatay alone, the highest toll of any Turkish province. At least 1,846 people had been rescued there as of Tuesday evening, he said. Hatay’s airport was closed after the quake destroyed the runway, complicating rescue efforts.

Aid to Syria hampered by war, division

In Syria, meanwhile, aid efforts have been hampered by the ongoing war and the isolation of the rebel-held region along the border, which is surrounded by Russia-backed government forces. Syria itself is an international pariah under Western sanctions linked to the war.

People remove furniture and household appliances out of a collapsed building after a devastating earthquake rocked Syria and Turkey in the town of Jinderis, Aleppo province, Syria, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (AP/Ghaith Alsayed)

Volunteer first responders known as the White Helmets have years of experience rescuing people from buildings destroyed by Syrian and Russian airstrikes in the rebel-held enclave, but they say the earthquake has overwhelmed their capabilities.

Mounir al-Mostafa, the deputy head of the White Helmets, said they were able to respond efficiently to up to 30 locations at a time but now face calls for help from more than 700.

“Teams are present in those locations, but the available machinery and equipment are not enough,” he said, adding that the first 72 hours were crucial for any rescue effort.

The United Nations said it was “exploring all avenues” to get supplies to the rebel-held northwest.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the road leading to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing — the only terminal through which UN aid is allowed to enter the rebel-held area — was damaged by the quake, disrupting deliveries.

Dujarric said the UN was preparing a convoy to cross the conflict lines within Syria.

The UN already delivers aid across conflict lines to the rebel-held enclave. But it can’t move the quantities needed because of difficulties in arranging convoys with opposing parties, making aid deliveries from Turkey critical.

IDF search and rescue teams begin operating in a bid to find survivors after an earthquake in Turkey on February 7, 2023. (Foreign Ministry)

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has pressed for years for all humanitarian aid to be sent from within Syria, including to the opposition-held enclave. The UN has increased cross-conflict line deliveries but not enough for the millions in need.

Turkey has large numbers of troops in the border region and has tasked the military with aiding its rescue efforts, including setting up tents for survivors and a field hospital in Hatay province.

A navy ship docked Tuesday at the province’s port of Iskenderun, where a hospital collapsed, to transport people in need of medical care to a nearby city.

A large fire at the port, caused by containers that toppled over during the earthquake, sent thick plumes of black smoke into the sky. The Defense Ministry said the blaze was extinguished with the help of military aircraft, but live footage broadcast by CNN Turk showed it was still burning.

Emergency team members search for people in a destroyed building in Adana, Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (AP/Francisco Seco)

The region sits on top of major fault lines and is frequently shaken by earthquakes.

Some 18,000 were killed in similarly powerful earthquakes that hit northwest Turkey in 1999. The country’s last 7.8-magnitude tremor was in 1939, when 33,000 died in the eastern Erzincan province.

Experts have long warned a large quake could devastate Istanbul, a megalopolis of 16 million people filled with rickety homes.

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