Rescuers in Turkey and Syria dug with their bare hands through the chilly night on Tuesday, searching for survivors among the wreckage of thousands of houses destroyed by a series of powerful earthquakes.
The reported death toll in both nations has risen to more than 4,300 following a swarm of severe earthquakes along the Turkey-Syria border, the greatest of which registered a staggering 7.8 magnitude.
According to Turkish and Syrian disaster response teams, about 5,600 structures have been destroyed across numerous cities, including several multi-story apartment complexes that were full of sleeping occupants when the first quake occurred.
Eyewitnesses in the southern Turkish city of Kahramanmaras struggled to fathom the magnitude of the calamity.
“We thought it was the apocalypse,” said Melisa Salman, a 23-year-old reporter. “That was the first time we have ever experienced anything like that.”
Turkey’s rescue agency AFAD reported 2,921 deaths on Tuesday, raising the total number of verified deaths to 4,365.
There are worries that the death toll will continue to increase inexorably, with World Health Organization experts predicting that up to 20,000 people may have perished.
As another building fell close without warning in Gaziantep, Turkey, home to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria’s decade-long civil conflict, rescuers yelled, sobbed, and clamoured for safety.
The original earthquake was so powerful that it was felt as far away as Greenland, and its impact was significant enough to elicit a global response.
Several countries, ranging from Ukraine to New Zealand, have pledged to send aid, however freezing rain and sub-zero temperatures have hindered the delivery.
Rescuers in the southeastern Turkish city of Sanliurfa were working late into the night to extract people from the ruins of a seven-story building that had fallen.
“There is a family I know under the rubble,” said 20-year-old Syrian student Omer El Cuneyd.
“Until 11:00 am or noon, my friend was still answering the phone. But she no longer answers. She is down there.”
Despite the cold, fearful inhabitants spent the night on the streets, huddling around fires for warmth.
Mustafa Koyuncu crammed his wife and five children into their car, unable to move.
“We can’t go home,” the 55-year-old told AFP. “Everyone is afraid.”
The worst destruction happened around the centre of the earthquake, between Kahramanmaras and Gaziantep, where entire city blocks lay in rubble under falling snow.
The first earthquake of the day occurred at 4:17 a.m. (0117 GMT) at a depth of around 18 kilometres (11 miles) in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, which has a population of roughly two million people, according to the US Geological Survey.
According to the disaster management service, more than 14,000 persons have been reported injured in Turkey, while Syria has recorded at least 3,411 injuries.
According to officials, three major airports have been rendered unusable, hampering the delivery of critical relief.
A winter snowfall has iced and snowed main roadways entering the area.
Years of conflict and aerial bombing by Syrian and Russian troops have already obliterated most of the quake-hit territory of northern Syria, destroying houses, hospitals, and clinics.
The fighting is already affecting the emergency response, with Syria’s UN ambassador, Bassam Sabbagh, appearing to rule out reopening border crossings that would allow supplies to reach areas held by rebel forces.
The Syrian health ministry claimed damage in Aleppo, Latakia, Hama, and Tartus, where Russia leases a naval base.
Even before the catastrophe, buildings in Aleppo, Syria’s pre-war economic centre, frequently fell owing to deteriorating infrastructure caused by a lack of wartime control.
As a precaution, officials turned off natural gas and electrical supplies throughout the region, as well as closing schools for two weeks.
The UN cultural organisation UNESCO raised concern over serious damage in two towns on its list: Aleppo, Syria, and Diyarbakir, Turkey.
A source at the institution told AFP that following the earthquakes, inmates mutinied at a penitentiary in northern Syria, with at least 20 fleeing.
The United States, the European Union, and Russia all swiftly expressed their sorrow and offered assistance.
President Joe Biden pledged his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the US will provide “any and all” resources required to assist in the recovery following a terrible earthquake.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has also given “essential aid” to Turkey, whose combat drones are assisting Kyiv in fighting the Russian assault.
Turkey is located in one of the most active seismic zones on the planet.
The country’s previous 7.8-magnitude earthquake occurred in 1939, killing 33,000 people in the eastern Erzincan region.
In 1999, a 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck the Turkish area of Duzce, killing almost 17,000 people.
Experts have long warned that a massive earthquake might damage Istanbul, a 16-million-person metropolis with unstable housing.