Hatay, Turkey – The highway between the southern Turkish cities of Iskenderun and Antakya has been filled with an endless stream of vehicles rushing to reach the devastated areas, among the worst hit by the disastrous 7.8-magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria on Monday.
Volunteers headed to the cities, bringing with them supplies and hoping to assist earthquake survivors and the families of victims.
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In Iskenderun on the Mediterranean coast, expansive plumes of dark smoke emanated from a massive fire raging on the city’s port, which continued well into the night on Tuesday.
Many buildings in the city centre have been razed to the ground or otherwise rendered uninhabitable by the earthquakes.
Water had flooded into streets in the city centre while crews continued to shovel piles of debris from fallen apartments, a task that, despite the endurance and dedication of the rescue squads, seemed to continue at a snail’s pace given the scale of the damage.
Elegant central areas of the Mediterranean city were nearly completely vacant.
Lights sparkled from the apartments that were fortunate enough to escape too much damage from the earthquakes, but they seemed to be outnumbered by those that were dark and empty.
Heading south through some of the most winding, mountainous parts of Hatay province, the road was busy with traffic.
Innumerable ambulances blazed by a long stretch of passenger vehicles, buses, and trucks hauling equipment. The din of sirens continued unabated for hours.
On the journey, a Turkish civil servant, his sister, and a dentist, who did not wish to be named, explained their reasons for travelling down. The sister was trying to help relatives of her neighbour, who had lost three young grandchildren in Antakya – the family was now stranded, unable to transport the bodies for their funeral due to a shortage of petrol in the area.
The scale of the destruction became apparent in the outskirts of Antakya, where many buildings had collapsed.
Some had been reduced to utter rubble while others stood with cracked walls and crumbling facades, ominously threatening to topple at any moment.
Adjacent to one major pile of wreckage, rescue workers were engaged with the seemingly impossible task of sifting through the damage.
A ruined hospital still stood but was leaning at an alarming angle, and sounds reverberating from the building prompted fears that it could collapse at any minute, which prompted warnings from volunteers to the numerous people that were huddling in blankets nearby.
Antakya residents were infuriated by what many said was the slow response on the part of authorities in reaching the area in the initial 24 hours following the quake, but there has also been an outpouring of support by a variety of rescue teams from throughout Turkey and abroad.
Gizem Akdogan tweeted on Monday that her cousin’s wife Busra Doganay and four-year-old daughter were trapped under the wreckage in the Hassa neighbourhood of Hatay, and that they were unable to hear from them.
A rescue team arrived at around noon on Tuesday but the exhumation process extended well into the next day and eventually their bodies were recovered in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
“It is horrifying to think about whether they died in the earthquake or if they froze to death,” Akdogan told Al Jazeera.
The Turkish government has defended its response, and blamed the difficulties on the condition of roads and airports in the area.
Rescue efforts in Antakya have been characterised by a slightly chaotic atmosphere and problems with organisation and a lack of machinery.
Many of the numerous volunteers directing traffic in Antakya have come from outside of the city and are unable to give directions within it.
A few miles from the historic city centre of what was once known as Antioch, the roads had been closed to vehicular traffic, and other areas of central Antakya were blanketed in darkness when night fell, with electricity nonexistent.
Many of the area’s residents were not in their homes, if they still stood, instead choosing to volunteer or crowd around the temporary warmth of makeshift fires, the grim sights surrounding them evidence of the devastation of the earthquake, and its consequences.
If you want to learn about how to donate to the Turkey and Syria earthquake disaster response, go here