Thousands dead after powerful quakes devastate Turkey and Syria

Major temblors rocked southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria with rescuers frantically searching for survivors in the bitter cold.

The worst earthquake disaster in decades in the region struck southern Turkey and neighbouring Syria, killing thousands of people with the death toll expected to surge as rescuers search the vast piles of rubble.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Monday’s twin temblors the “biggest disaster” since the 1939 Erzincan earthquake, which killed about 33,000 people.

The first magnitude 7.7 quake, centred in Turkey’s southeastern province of Kahramanmaras, brought down whole apartment blocks in several cities and piled more devastation on millions of Syrians displaced by years of war.

Freezing winter weather added to the plight of the many thousands injured or left homeless while hampering efforts to find survivors.

Huseyin Yayman, a legislator from Turkey’s Hatay province, said several of his family members were stuck under the rubble of their collapsed homes.

“There are so many other people who are also trapped,” he told HaberTurk television by phone. “There are so many buildings that have been damaged. People are on the streets. It’s raining, it’s winter.”

The first earthquake came before sunrise in harsh weather and was followed in the early afternoon by another large quake of magnitude 7.6 at noon, according to Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD).

The second quake brought down more buildings and, like the first, was felt across the region, endangering rescuers struggling to pull casualties from the debris.

In addition to Kahramanmaras, the southeastern provinces of Gaziantep, Diyarbakir, Elazig, Malatya, Adıyaman, Kilis, Hatay, Osmaniye and Bingol were hit by the quakes.

In Turkey, the death toll stood at 2,316, AFAD said, adding about 12,000 people were injured. At least 1,293 people were reported killed in Syria.

AFAD official Orhan Tatar said in a televised statement late on Monday more than 5,500 buildings collapsed. More than 6,400 people were rescued from fallen structures across southeastern Turkey.

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said the region felt at least 145 aftershocks, adding three were stronger than magnitude 6.

‘People don’t know where to go’

Ahmed al-Khatib, an Al Jazeera producer in Turkey’s Gaziantep, said people who survived the disaster do not know where to go.

“You see hundreds and thousands of cars just moving in and out of streets. People don’t feel safe even inside a mosque or a government building and they prefer to stand outside. And it is now under zero degrees, it is too cold. When I’m talking to you, I’m shaking,” he said.

On the Syrian side, the areas struck are divided between government-held territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces.

Turkey, meanwhile, is home to millions of Syrian refugees from the civil war.

Nearly 1,300 people were killed in Syria, according to figures from the Damascus government and the White Helmets, rescue workers located in the northwestern region controlled by opposition forces.

Hundreds of families remained trapped in rubble, the White Helmets said in a statement.

El Mostafa Benlamlih, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Syria, said infrastructure is seriously damaged across the region.

“Water [sources] have been damaged. We rely very much on water tanks. Many of them either need serious repair or need to be replaced,” he told Al Jazeera.

He added fuel is not available and some hospitals are damaged. “We need a lot of help here.”


Freezing temperatures

Bitterly cold temperatures could reduce the timeframe that rescuers have to save trapped survivors, said Dr Steven Godby, an expert in natural hazards at Nottingham Trent University. The difficulty of working in areas beset by civil war would further complicate rescue efforts, he said.

Temperatures in some areas were expected to fall below freezing overnight, worsening conditions for people trapped under rubble or left homeless. Rain and snow were falling across the region.

The latest disaster is already the highest death toll from an earthquake in Turkey since 1999, when a temblor of similar magnitude devastated the heavily populated eastern Marmara Sea region near Istanbul, killing more than 17,000.

President Erdogan called it a historic disaster and declared seven days of mourning.

“Everyone is putting their heart and soul into efforts although the winter season, cold weather and the earthquake happening during the night makes things more difficult,” he said.

Erdogan said 45 countries had offered to help with the search and rescue efforts.

The vast majority were for Turkey, with Russian and even an Israeli promise of help to the Syrian government. But it was not clear if any would go to the devastated rebel-held pocket in Syria’s northwest.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies