Turkey-Syria earthquake death toll tops 7,100 as rescuers race against time, cold

Foreign Ministry issues travel warning for Israelis as IDF team joins search efforts in Turkey

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

Rescuers in Turkey and Syria battled frigid cold Tuesday in a race against time to find survivors under buildings flattened by an earthquake that killed more than 7,000 people.

Officials and medics said 5,434 people have died in Turkey and 1,712 in Syria, bringing the total to 7,146.

Tremors that inflicted more suffering on a border area, already plagued by conflict, left people on the streets burning debris to try to stay warm as international aid began to arrive.

But some extraordinary survival tales have emerged, including a newborn baby pulled alive from rubble in Syria, still tied by her umbilical cord to her mother who died in Monday’s quake.

“We heard a voice while we were digging,” Khalil al-Suwadi, a relative, told AFP. “We cleared the dust and found the baby with the umbilical cord [intact] so we cut it and my cousin took her to hospital.”

The infant is the sole survivor of her immediate family, the rest of whom were killed in the rebel-held town of Jindayris.

The 7.8-magnitude quake struck Monday as people slept, flattening thousands of structures, trapping an unknown number of people and potentially impacting millions.

A Syrian man cries as he sits on the rubble of a collapsed building in the rebel-held town of Jindayris on February 7, 2023, following a deadly earthquake. (Aaref Watad/AFP)

Whole rows of buildings collapsed, leaving some of the heaviest devastation near the quake’s epicenter between the Turkish cities of Gaziantep and Kahramanmaras.

The destruction led to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declaring Tuesday a three-month state of emergency in 10 southeastern provinces.

Due to the devastation, the Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning for southeastern Turkey, calling on Israelis to stay away from areas hit by the earthquake.

The statement pointed to severe damage to critical infrastructure like hospitals and water supply.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry told residents of several communities in northern Israel to boil drinking water as a precaution in the wake of the earthquakes that rattled the region.

Residents of Dovev, Baram, Yiron, Sasa, Matat, Tzivon and Har Meron were told to boil water for drinking, cooking, preparing medicines and brushing teeth until further notice.

The ministry order came a day after a similar call to communities in the Beit She’an area, saying that the quake led to an increase in turbidity in the groundwater that is fed into the water system.

‘Children are freezing’

Dozens of nations like the United States, China and the Gulf States have pledged to help, and search teams as well as relief supplies have begun to arrive by airplane, including from Israel.

Yet people in some of the hardest-hit areas said they felt like they had been left to fend for themselves.

“I can’t get my brother back from the ruins. I can’t get my nephew back. Look around here. There is no state official here, for God’s sake,” said Ali Sagiroglu in the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras.

“For two days, we haven’t seen the state around here… Children are freezing from the cold,” he added.

People stand at a bonfire among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaras, on February 7, 2023, a day after a 7,8-magnitude earthquake struck southeast Turkey. (Ozan Kose/AFP)

A winter storm has compounded the misery by rendering many roads — some of them damaged by the quake — almost impassable, resulting in traffic jams that stretch for kilometers in some regions.

The cold rain and snow are a risk both for people forced from their homes — who took refuge in mosques, schools or even bus shelters — and survivors buried under debris.

“It is now a race against time,” said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“We have activated the WHO network of emergency medical teams to provide essential health care for the injured and most vulnerable,” he added.

In Turkey, an Israeli military aid delegation began to assist in search and rescue operations. The Home Front Command team was reportedly delayed by several hours due to weather conditions and traffic.

The first images from the scene were shared by David Saranga, a foreign ministry official.

The Israel Defense Forces said a delegation of medical and logistics corps troops will depart for Turkey early Wednesday morning to establish a field hospital to treat victims of the earthquake.

Preparations were already underway, and the delegation will comprise some 230 people, including military medics and Health Ministry doctors, nurses, and paramedics, according to the military.

“The delegation will establish a field hospital and focus on providing medical treatment using advanced equipment brought in from Israel,” the IDF said.

Additionally, the military said the delegation will assist Home Front Command search and rescue teams operating in the area.

23 million could be affected

There are fears that the death toll will rise inexorably, with WHO officials estimating up to 20,000 may have died.

WHO warned that up to 23 million people could be affected by the massive earthquake and urged nations to rush help to the disaster zone.

The Syrian Red Crescent appealed to Western countries to lift sanctions and provide aid as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government remains a pariah in the West, complicating international relief efforts.

Washington and the European Commission said on Monday that humanitarian programs supported by them were responding to the destruction in Syria.

Rescuers search for victims and survivors in the rubble of collapsed buildings in Gaziantep, close to the quake’s epicenter, a day after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country’s southeast, on February 7, 2023. (Zein Al Rifai/AFP)

Much of the quake-hit area of northern Syria has already been decimated by years of war and aerial bombardment by Syrian and Russian forces that destroyed homes, hospitals and clinics.

Residents in the quake-devastated town of Jindayris in northern Syria used their bare hands and pickaxes for survivors, as that was all they had to get the job done.

‘Hear their voices’

“My whole family is under there — my sons, my daughter, my son-in-law… There’s no one else to get them out,” said Ali Battal, his face streaked with blood and head swathed in a wool shawl against the bitter cold.

“I hear their voices. I know they’re alive but there’s no one to rescue them,” added the man in his 60s.

The Syrian health ministry reported damage across the provinces of Aleppo, Latakia, Hama and Tartus, where Russia is leasing a naval facility.

Even before the tragedy, buildings in Aleppo — Syria’s pre-war commercial hub — often collapsed due to the dilapidated infrastructure.

A picture shows rubble in Aleppo’s old town on February 7, 2023 following a deadly earthquake. (Louai Beshara/AFP)

Following the earthquake, prisoners mutinied at a jail holding mostly Islamic State jihadist group members in northwestern Syria, with at least 20 escaping, a source at the facility told AFP.

Turkey is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones.

The country’s last 7.8-magnitude tremor was in 1939, when 33,000 died in the eastern Erzincan province.

The Turkish region of Duzce suffered a 7.4-magnitude earthquake in 1999, when more than 17,000 people died.

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

Emanuel Fabian and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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