20,000 feared dead in earthquake as rescuers race against time to save trapped victims
Rescue teams are in a race against time to find survivors of the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, with fears the ultimate death toll could reach 20,000.
Search teams from all over the world and almost 25,000 rescue workers from Turkey have spread out across the vast area devastated by the tremors. Although rain and snow, as well as overnight temperature drops, have hampered search efforts – meaning a number of areas have been left without help so far.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 23 million people in both countries could be directly affected by the earthquakes, including 1.4 million children. Unicef also believes the death toll could end up including thousands of children.
“It is now a race against time,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Geneva. “Every minute, every hour that passes, the chance of finding survivors alive decreases.”
Catherine Smallwood, WHO’s chief emergency officer for Europe, said the death toll rises “significantly” in the week following disasters and that it is possible to reach 20,000.
Residents were forced to dig up their loved ones from the collapsed buildings around them. Those trapped have called or sent messages by phone to get an idea of their location.
“We could hear their voices, they were calling for help,” said Ali Silo, whose two relatives in the Turkish city of Nurdag could not be rescued. In the end, it was left to Silo, a Syrian who arrived from Hama a decade ago, and other residents to recover the bodies and those of two other victims.
In the Turkish city of Antakya, capital of Hatay province near the Syrian border, a woman’s voice was heard under a pile of rubble calling for help. Crying in the rain, one resident calling his name as Deniz wrung his hands in despair.
“They make noise, but no one comes,” said the man. “We are devastated, we are devastated. My god… you’re calling. They say, “Save us,” but we can’t save them. How will we save her? No one has been there since morning.”
There have been a number of stories about people of all ages being pulled from the rubble of their former homes, including a baby being born in the rubble.
Turkey said more than 8,000 people had been pulled from the rubble by Tuesday afternoon. The death toll in Turkey and Syria quickly topped 7,200 during the day, with the majority coming from regions in southern Turkey. That number is expected to only rise as the World Health Organization says there are a number of areas in both nations where information is still lacking.
About 13.5 million people were affected in an area stretching about 280 miles from Adana in the west to Diyarbakir in the east and 190 miles from Malatya in the north to Hatay in the south, according to Turkish authorities. The country’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has declared the ten affected Turkish provinces a disaster area and imposed a state of emergency over the region for three months. This will allow the President and Cabinet to bypass Parliament when passing new legislation and limit or suspend rights and freedoms.
Syrian authorities have reported deaths as far away as Hama, about 60 miles from the epicenter, with rescue teams in opposition areas in the northwest suspecting hundreds could be trapped under the rubble.
Other nations have also reported missing people, with the UK saying the whereabouts of three British nationals are unknown and assisting a few dozen others directly affected.
For the homeless in both countries, thousands have gathered in makeshift shelters or mosques, which have opened their doors. Others have slept in cars or huddled in malls, stadiums, or community centers. Some spent the night outside in blankets gathered around fires.
Many have seen their homes destroyed or are too afraid to return, thanks to the threat of aftershocks, dozens of which have been felt since the first massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake and a 7.5-magnitude quake just hours later were. These aftershocks have at times reached almost magnitude 6.
Around 380,000 people in Turkey have fled to government accommodation or hotels, said Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay. The Turkish government plans to open more hotels in the tourist center of Antalya in the west to temporarily accommodate people affected by the tremors. Many people are still wearing the clothes they were wearing when the first earthquake struck at 4 a.m. local time on Monday.
Rami Araba, who works for CARE International, a humanitarian charity, is in Gaziantep. “There’s no water and we’re out in the snow in the freezing cold,” he says from a shelter. “The aftershocks are very strong and everyone fears that the next building will collapse, so no one dares to go back inside.”
“The number of people affected is extremely high. Nobody asks if you are Turkish or Syrian, it doesn’t matter now. There are students, people of different nationalities and we are all in shock.”
For Syria, the long-term situation is particularly acute as the country has been ravaged by years of fighting. In opposition-held areas of the north-west of the country, infrastructure such as hospitals and shelters are already overwhelmed as millions have been displaced during the war, while a number of areas have been leveled by repeated bombardments by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces . The Syrian government has been accused of politics with aid, with Syrian ambassador to the United Nations Bassam Sabbagh saying his country should be responsible for delivering all aid to the country, including areas not under state control . The flow of UN aid from Turkey to north-west Syria has been temporarily halted due to road damage and other logistical problems.
In the Syrian city of Hama, Abdallah al Dahan said funerals for several families were held on Tuesday.
“It’s a chilling scene in every way,” he told Reuters. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, despite everything that’s happened to us.”