Rescue teams battle ‘weather and earthquake’ as death toll tops 7,700

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GAZIANTEP, Turkey – Rescue workers dug through the rubble on Tuesday to find survivors of the most powerful and deadliest earthquake to hit Turkey and Syria in decades, toiling in a vast and desperate search complicated by geography and geopolitics, freezing weather and the scale of the disaster.

Even as they struggled to free people from the metal, concrete and wooden graves where apartments and office buildings once stood, the death toll soared. At least 7,700 people are believed to have been killed, officials said.

Crews found reason to hope, saving more than 8,000 people in Turkey alone. But they were also working against the weather as temperatures dipped below freezing. Survivors, many barefoot and in nightwear, huddled around the wreckage’s bonfires to keep warm.

Rescue teams shoveled snow as it piled on top of the debris, searching for the injured and trapped. In Gaziantep, a Turkish town near the epicenter of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck on Monday, four members of the same family were painstakingly rescued, one by one. In northwestern Syria, residents found a crying baby in the rubbleapparently the only survivor of a building collapse and who had 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 “the disaster of the century”.

In Turkey, rescue efforts spanned 10 provinces and hundreds of miles, from the sprawling ancient city of Gazientep to rural towns and villages where roads became so twisted they could not be used. The Turkish navy sent ships with heavy machinery, blankets, generators and food, and the national emergency management agency sent more than 16,000 workers, 3,000 machines and 600 cranes to lift the debris .

Many rescuers were volunteers who had no plan but to help where they could. “We are here because of our conscience and because we are always on the side of the weaker ones,” said Mehmet Bodur, 55, in the Turkish town of Sanliurfa.

“We are facing one of the biggest catastrophes ever in 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.

In Syria, where more than a decade of civil war had already created a humanitarian crisis, rescue efforts have been hampered by the location of the quake area, which includes government and opposition-held land.

“People are bringing bodies to us in their personal cars,” said Nehad Abdulmajeed, a doctor near the city of Idlib, Syria.

“We cried over children who lived through this war and have now died for no reason,” he said.

“I thought maybe I had seen it all,” he added, “but these were the most tragic days I’ve seen in my entire life.”

Syria cannot receive direct aid from many countries due to Western sanctions against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The only UN-approved crossing point for aid between Syria and Turkey – a lifeline for opposition-held areas in the north – has been closed due to earthquake damage , UN officials said, posing serious logistical obstacles to relief efforts.

But hopes that aid could reach rebel-held areas through other routes were raised by a statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on Tuesday. Advocacy for international support on Lebanese televisionhe said his government was ready to allow aid for earthquake victims to enter all regions, provided the aid did not reach armed terrorist groups.

Each problem seemed to be compounded by another. A huge fire broke out at one of Turkey’s main ports on Tuesday, disrupting the arrival of supplies. An economic crisis had already hit many Turkish families, which meant that resources were increasingly scarce for months before the earthquake.

In Adana, about 100 miles from the epicenter in southern Turkey, terrain and weather delayed many rescuers before they even reached the town. Snow had closed the mountain highway linking Adana and 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 people who had fled because they were still in shock or feared their homes were no longer safe.

They camped out and tried to stay warm among the piles of snow. Some families took turns in their car, just to get shelter from the wind. Others erected simple tents, attaching blue tarps to fences. In some streets, crowds gathered around oil drums where men lit wood fires, smoked and held out their bare palms for warmth.

At least 150,000 people in Turkey have been left homeless following the quake and its aftershocks, which caused the collapse of around 6,000 buildings, an official with the International Federation of Human Rights told reporters in Geneva. Red Cross. About 23 million people in the region are likely to need help, World Health Organization officials said, citing figures provided by the Pacific Disaster Center, a disaster management organization.

More aftershocks remained a “substantial” risk, said Dr Rick Brennan, regional emergency director for the WHO office for the Eastern Mediterranean, in an interview. He said that due to insufficient water supply and sanitation infrastructure in parts of Syria, the earthquake could aggravate existing outbreaks of cholera and measles.

Mr. Erdogan’s declaration of a state of emergency has raised some concerns in Turkey; Turkish opponents and Western officials have accused him of pushing the country towards autocracy during decades in power. But analysts said the decision made sense, given the scale of the disaster. The emergency period is set to end shortly before the big elections in May, a vote that could be shaped by Mr. Erdogan’s reaction to the earthquake.

Time is already running out for the many people still believed to be trapped in collapsed buildings.

The death toll is expected to continue to rise by “thousands”, WHO officials said on Tuesday. As of Tuesday evening, the death toll in Turkey had risen to 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 relief group.

News of the living and the dead slowly, inevitably, reached relatives in both countries.

Before his plane took off from Istanbul for Sanliurfa, a city in southeastern Turkey on the edge of the earthquake zone, Tugce Kocak, 38, began to sob while talking on the phone. Her husband had managed to catch an earlier flight carrying aid and had called her from the pile of rubble that had been his family’s apartment.

“They died,” she said of her brother-in-law and one of her children. Her husband was not sure if the other three family members survived.

The family lived in a new residential complex of nine buildings of nine floors each, completely collapsed. Rescue teams arrived at the site 24 hours after the quake, Ms. Kocak said, and only after a relative repeatedly called local emergency officials.

There were not enough rescue teams and not enough equipment to save her brother-in-law and the child, she said.

“My husband heard their voices until 7 p.m., saw their arms and legs,” she said. “Then they all went quiet.”

Safak Timur and Ben Hubbard reported from Gaziantep, Turkey, and Gulsin Harman from Istanbul. The report was provided by Raja Abdulrahim, Jin Yu Young, Natasha Frost, Cora Engelbrecht, Anouchka Patil, Vivek Shankar, Yonette Joseph, Farnaz Fassihi, Jenny Gross, Bengali Shashank, Nick Cumming – Bruce, Cassandra Vinograd, Matt Surman And Alan Yuhas.