Turkey and Syria earthquake death toll passes 7,800 as rescue efforts falter
Aftershocks, freezing temperatures and damaged roads are hampering efforts to tackle the enormous humanitarian emergency triggered by Monday’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake in southern Turkey and northern Syria, with 7,800 people now confirmed dead and 380,000 others seeking refuge in Turkey alone.
As the scale of the devastation from the initial quake – and a second tremor – became clearer, the Turkish authorities declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces and the World Health Organization warned that the number of fatalities could exceed 20,000.
By Tuesday evening, the death toll had passed 7,800. In Turkey, 5,894 people were confirmed to have died and around 32,000 had been injured. The death toll in Syria rose to 1,932 on Tuesday night.
People in remote towns in southern Turkey described how relief efforts were stretched to breaking point, amid destruction over a border region spanning almost 650 miles. In rebel-held northern Syria, volunteer rescue workers said they lacked fuel and some of the most basic provisions required to pull those still trapped under the rubble of their homes.
An unknown number of people remain trapped and efforts to find survivors have been frustrated by frigid conditions. Poor internet connections and damaged roads between some of the worst-hit cities in Turkey’s south, home to millions of people, also hindered rescue teams.
Related: ‘Like the end of days’: shellshocked survivors join hunt for missing in Turkey-Syria earthquake
A spokesperson for the United Nations office for the coordination of humanitarian assistance (OCHA) said the flow of critical aid from Turkey to north-west Syria had been temporarily halted on Tuesday morning as a result of damage to roads and other logistical issues. She added: “We don’t have a clear picture of when it will resume.”
Turkey’s disaster management agency said it had received 11,342 reports of collapsed buildings – of which 5,775 had been confirmed – while more than 8,000 people had been pulled from the debris. According to the Turkish authorities, some 380,000 were in government shelters or hotels; others had sought safety in shopping malls, stadiums, mosques and community centres.
Murat Harun Öngören, a coordinator with AKUT, Turkey’s largest civil society aid and rescue organisation, said efforts to reach those affected across southern Turkey had been severely impeded by the cold weather and icy conditions – as well as the sheer size of the affected area.
“We often define major earthquakes as disasters. This is more than an earthquake, this is a disaster,” he said.
The coordinator said those trapped beneath rubble were at increasing risk with each passing hour. “To ensure people get the proper help might not be easy for the first 72 hours after such major and catastrophic earthquakes,” he said. “Team coordination, transportation and logistical issues are not easy.”.
Öngören also said the true number of collapsed buildings was likely to greatly exceed the confirmed tally so far, adding: “When you combine the number of these collapsed buildings with other criteria, I can say that we are faced with a difficult operation.”
Ali Ünlü, from the remote town of Adıyaman, close to the quake epicentre in Kahramanmaraş, said he had been working since Monday morning to free his elderly mother who was trapped under the rubble of her home.
“After the earthquake I ran to my mother’s house, and saw the building had collapsed. I was devastated. I started waiting for rescue teams, but they didn’t show up. I started calling officials, all the lines cut out,” he said.
“The weather is extremely cold, and we have no food. At first, one of my relatives texted that he is under the rubble and we could hear his voice under the debris. He was trapped there for four hours, and eventually we dug him out.”
“It’s been over 24 hours and my mother is still trapped under the rubble. I don’t know if she’s still alive or not. Resources are stretched so thin, but I feel there’s a lack of organisation.”
Many Turks vented their anger online over what they said was a negligent emergency response in the southern-most province of Hatay, with many complaining that rescue efforts had failed to reach the area.
In Hatay, the quake levelled multiple government buildings including the local chapter of Turkey’s disaster relief agency, the AFAD.
“I am so angry,” said analyst Gönül Tol, of the Middle East Institute in Washington. “People are trying to dig out loved ones trapped under rubble. It is cold, raining, no electricity. One family member is trapped under a heavy concrete slab, waiting for rescue workers for hours.”
In Syria, the effects of the quake were compounded by the destruction brought on by more than 11 years of civil war. A senior UN humanitarian official said fuel shortages in Syria and the harsh winter weather were also creating obstacles to its response.
“The infrastructure is damaged, the roads that we used to use for humanitarian work are damaged, we have to be creative in how to get to the people … but we are working hard,” UN resident coordinator El-Mostafa Benlamlih told Reuters.
In the rebel-held areas of northern Syria, rescuers workers toiled through the night to find civilians still trapped under the rubble, while others attempted to find shelter in the freezing rain.
“This earthquake could not have come at a worst time. The situation on the ground is that there’s just no shelter. There’s nowhere to go. It’s raining right now, and our colleagues are on the ground trying to dig people out of the rubble in the middle of freezing temperatures,” said Oubadah Alwan, a spokesperson for the Syrian Civil Defence forces, also known as the White Helmets, an emergency response force trained to rescue people trapped under the rubble after airstrikes.
Related: A visual guide to the earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria
Alwan said that the Syrian Civil Defence forces were lacking in basic resources needed for the rescue efforts, even down to diesel fuel to power machinery.
“In north-west Syria, in terms of emergency response, it’s largely just the White Helmets working. And we’re just an NGO, we’re definitely not equipped to deal with this level of scale of tragedy, and chaos,” he said.
On Monday – speaking when the estimated toll stood at 2,600 – Catherine Smallwood, the WHO senior emergency officer for Europe, said the death toll could increase “eightfold” on the initial numbers.
“We always see the same thing with earthquakes, unfortunately, which is that the initial reports of the numbers of people who have died or who have been injured will increase quite significantly in the week that follows.”
Many governments have rushed to dispatch aid, personnel and equipment to help the rescue efforts. Pledges of assistance came in on Monday from countries across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as well as North America. Turkey said it had received offers of aid from 45 governments ranging from Kuwait to India to Russia.
A 21-strong team of Greek rescue workers, specialised in dealing with natural disasters, arrived in Hatay on Tuesday morning with sniffer dogs, doctors, nurses and a special fire-fighting vehicle.
Syria said on Monday that aid sent after the earthquake would reach all its population, even though Damascus does not control all of its territory.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will be under pressure to oversee an effective response to the disaster heading to an election on 14 May.
“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.