NURDAGI, Turkey (AP) — Search teams and aid poured into Turkey and Syria on Tuesday as rescuers working in freezing temperatures and sometimes using their bare hands dug up the remains of buildings flattened by a powerful tremor earthen. The death toll has passed 6,200 and was to increase further.
But with the damage spread over a wide area, the massive relief operation often struggled to reach the devastated towns, and the voices crying out from the rubble died down.
“We could hear their voices, they were calling for help,” said Ali Silo, whose two relatives could not be saved in the Turkish town of Nurdagi.
In the end, it is up to Silo, a Syrian who arrived ten years ago, and other residents to recover the bodies and those of two other victims.
Monday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake and a cascade of strong aftershocks cut through a swath of destruction that stretched for hundreds of kilometers (miles) across southeastern Turkey and neighboring Syria. The quake toppled thousands of buildings and deepened misery in a region shaped by Syria’s 12-year civil war and refugee crisis. A tremor that followed the first recorded at magnitude 7.5, powerful in itself.
Unstable piles of metal and concrete made search efforts perilous, while freezing temperatures made them even more urgent, as concerns grew over the life of survivors trapped in the cold. Snow swirled around rescuers in Turkey’s Malatya province, according to footage carried by the state-run Anadolu news agency.
The scale of the suffering – and the accompanying rescue effort – was staggering.
More than 8,000 people have been pulled from the rubble in Turkey alone, and some 380,000 have taken refuge in government shelters or hotels, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said. They crammed into malls, stadiums, mosques and community centers, while others spent the night outside in blankets gathering around the fires.
Many have taken to social media to ask for help for loved ones who are believed to be trapped under the rubble. Anadolu quoted Interior Ministry officials who said all calls were “recovered meticulously” and the information was passed on to search teams.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 13 million of the country’s 85 million people were affected and declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces.
For the entire area affected by the earthquake, the number could reach 23 million people, according to Adelheid Marschang, head of emergencies at the World Health Organization.
“This is a crisis on top of multiple crises in the affected region,” Marschang said in Geneva.
Turkey is home to millions of refugees from the Syrian civil war. The affected area in Syria is divided between government-controlled territory and the country’s last opposition enclave, where millions of people live in extreme poverty and depend on humanitarian aid to survive.
The Palestinian Authority said 57 Palestinian refugees were among the dead – 14 in Turkey and 43 in Syria, a country that for decades hosted nearly half a million Palestinians in large refugee camps.
Teams from nearly 30 countries across the world to Turkey or Syria.
As aid pledges poured in, including a pledge of $100 million from the United Arab Emirates, Turkey sought to speed up the effort by allowing only vehicles carrying aid to enter the worst affected provinces of Kahramanmaras, Adiyaman and Hatay.
The UN said it was “exploring all avenues” to supply rebel-held northwest Syria and released $25 million from its emergency fund to help kick-start the humanitarian response in Turkey and Syria.
Sébastien Gay, head of mission in Syria for Doctors Without Borders, said health facilities were overwhelmed and medical staff were working around the clock to help the injured.
Nurgul Atay told The Associated Press that she could hear her mother’s voice under the rubble of a collapsed building in the Turkish city of Antakya, the capital of Hatay province. But efforts to enter the ruins had been in vain without any heavy equipment to help.
“If only we could lift the concrete slab, we could reach it,” she said. “My mother is 70 years old, she won’t be able to take this for long.”
But help has reached some. Several dramatic rescues were reported in the area as survivors, including young children, were pulled from the rubble more than 30 hours after the quake.
Residents of a Syrian town have discovered a crying baby whose mother apparently gave birth while he was buried in the rubble of a five-story building, relatives and a doctor said.
The newborn was found buried under the rubble with his umbilical cord still connected to his mother, Afraa Abu Hadiya, who was found dead, they said.
The baby was the only member of his family to survive a building collapse in the small town of Jinderis, near the Turkish border, Ramadan Sleiman, a relative, told The Associated Press.
In the city of Aleppo, a Maronite Christian convent opened its doors to hundreds of residents who fled their shaky homes.
“Based on our principles and ideas of welcoming the most needy, we wanted to make sure that anyone who was scared or had lost their home or was on the streets could find shelter here,” said Brother George Sabah. “We have opened all parts of the convent.”
Turkey has a large number of troops in the border region and has tasked the military to help with rescue efforts, including setting up tents for the homeless and a field hospital in Hatay province.
A navy ship docked at the provincial port of Iskenderun, where a hospital collapsed, on Tuesday to ferry survivors in need of medical attention to a nearby town.
A major fire at the port, caused by containers that overturned during the earthquake, sent thick plumes of black smoke into the sky. The Ministry of Defense later said the fire was put out with the help of military aircraft.
Turkey’s emergency management agency said the total death toll in the country had exceeded 4,500, with some 26,000 injured.
The death toll in areas controlled by the Syrian government has exceeded 800, with some 1,400 injured, according to the Health Ministry. At least 900 people have died in the rebel-held northwest, according to the White Helmets, the emergency organization leading the rescue operations, with more than 2,300 injured.
The region sits on top of major fault lines and is frequently shaken by earthquakes. Some 18,000 people were killed in equally powerful earthquakes that struck northwestern Turkey in 1999.
Alsayed reported from Azmarin, Syria, while Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers David Rising in Bangkok, Zeynep Bilginsoy and Robert Badendieck in Istanbul, Bassem Mroue and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut, Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, and Riazat Butt in Islamabad, contributed to this report.