Major earthquakes kill thousands of people in Turkey and Syria

Rescue efforts after magnitude 7.8 and 7.6 tremors complicated by severe winter conditions.

Powerful earthquakes and aftershocks killed thousands of people and injured thousands more in Turkey and Syria, triggering frantic searches for survivors in the rubble of collapsed buildings.

An initial magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit near the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep at 4:17am local time (01:17 GMT) on Monday, as people were sleeping, at a depth of about 17.9km (11 miles). It was also felt as far as Cyprus, Egypt and Lebanon.

Dozens of aftershocks followed, with a powerful 7.6 earthquake striking the Elbistan region of Turkey’s Kahramanmaras province at 10:24 GMT.

There were fears the death toll would rise significantly.

INTERACTIVE Turkey Syria earthquake location

The Turkish government has declared a level 4 state of emergency, which includes a call for international assistance as well as the mobilisation of all national forces.

Rescuers used heavy equipment and their bare hands to peel back rubble in search of survivors, who they could in some cases hear begging for help under the debris. The rescue was being hampered by a winter blizzard that covered major roads in ice and snow. Turkish officials said the quake made three major airports in the area inoperable, further complicating deliveries of vital aid.

Authorities urged people not to enter damaged buildings due to the risks.

“Our priority is to bring out people trapped under ruined buildings and to transfer them to hospitals,” Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said.

Videos shared on social media showed harrowing images of buildings reduced to piles of rubble in several cities in Turkey’s southeast. Local broadcasters showed images of people gathered around destroyed buildings in the town of Kahramanmaras, looking for survivors. Other images showed people taking shelter in their cars on the side of snow-covered roads.

Meanwhile in the rebel-held parts of Syria, the Syrian Civil Defence – a rescue organisation also known as the White Helmets – said the death toll was rising. The area is packed with some four million people displaced from other parts of the country by the war. Many of them live in buildings that are already wrecked from past bombardments.

Ismail Abdullah, a member of the rescue team told Al Jazeera that the situation was “catastrophic in every sense of the word,” adding the death toll is likely going to increase dramatically as hundreds of families are still stuck under the rubble.

“The disaster is far greater than our emergency response capacity. Thousands of families are homeless, especially as we are witnessing a snow storm, which increases the tragedy,” said Abdullah. “We are now facing a real catastrophe that we have not experienced for years,” he said.

Alaa Nafi, from Idlib city in Syria, described the earthquake as “extremely horrific and terrifying”.

“Waking up in the middle of the night to the entire building shaking was the worst feeling ever and made it very hard to escape,” he told Al Jazeera, saying the earthquake “felt like ages”.

“Seeing the people with children out on the streets crying in cold weather was heartbreaking, but we all congregated in one area away from all the buildings,” Nafi said. “I certainly wish that no one will ever go through what we went through today,” he added.

President Bashar al-Assad was holding an emergency cabinet meeting to review the damage and discuss the next steps, his office said.

State television showed footage of rescue teams searching for survivors in heavy rain and sleet. Health officials urged the public to help take the injured to hospitals.

The initial earthquake also jolted residents in Lebanon from their beds, shaking buildings for about 40 seconds. Many residents of Beirut left their homes and took to the streets or got in their cars to drive away from buildings.

Martin Mai, professor of geophysics at King Abdullah University, told Al Jazeera it was one of the largest earthquakes to hit the area in a hundred years.

“Large damage and local devastation has to be expected,” he said.

“In the past, these earthquakes in Turkey have led to about thousands of casualties owning to building style construction and the sheer size of this event will have profound economic impact as well,” Mai added.

Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said the earthquake was felt across Turkey from the southern cities as far north as the Black Sea. She added that cities like Gaziantep were crowded, not only with Turkish citizens but Syrian refugees.

She also noted hat poor weather conditions were making the situation worse.

“People are outside. People are scared, and it is very cold.”

Turkey is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones – some 18,000 people were killed in powerful earthquakes that hit the country’s northwest in 1999.

Al Jazeera’s Resul Serdar, reporting from Istanbul, said the earthquake would likely have an effect on Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections, currently set for May.

“This is a litmus test for the current government of President Erdogan because the economy in the country is already struggling and the prices are going higher and higher,” he said.

“Many experts agree that this is going to be the most difficult election for president Erdogan throughout his political career. And on the other hand, of course, it is an opportunity for the opposition in the country as well, because the management of this crisis is going to be determinative.”

Rescuers in red uniforms pull people to safety after the earthquake collapsed buildings in Syria.
Syrian state media said buildings collapsed in cities including Hama, where rescuers were shown evacuating a victim from an eight-storey building that collapsed in the earthquake [SANA via AFP]

A number of international leaders swiftly offered assistance. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who maintain ties with both Turkey and the Syrian government, sent his condolences and support,

French President Emmanuel Macron also said his country was ready to provide emergency aid to Turkey and Syria.

Ten search and rescue team from eight European Union countries have been mobilised to help first responders in Turkey, the European Commission said in a statement.

The units come from Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania. Italy and Hungary have also offered to send teams to Turkey, the commission wrote.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies