The death toll rises as major tremors strike Turkey and Syria, while rescue teams desperately search for survivors in the sheer cold.
The region of southern Turkey and neighboring Syria has been hit by the worst earthquake disaster in decades, thousands have been killed and the death toll is expected to surge as the rescue workers dig deeper into the vast piles of rubble.
On Monday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called it the “biggest disaster” since the Erzincan earthquake which killed about 33,000 people in 1939.
The southeastern province of Kahramanmaras centered the first magnitude of 7.7 quakes, bringing down whole apartment complex blocks in several cities and worst affecting the war-displaced Syrians over the years.
Chilling winters added further plight leaving many homeless and injured slowing down the efforts to rescue the survivors.
In Hatay province, legislator Huseyin Yayman’s family members were stuck under the rubble of their collapsed house.
“There are people who came down on the streets after their houses were damaged. “It’s raining and the freezing winds are biting me.” He told Haber Turk television by phone. “And there are so many other people who are trapped after their buildings came down.”
According to Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD). The first earthquake came before sunrise during harsh weather, followed by another large quake of magnitude 7.6 in the early afternoon.
Like the first, the second earthquake brought more buildings down to rubble, the effects were felt across the region, putting further risk for rescuers to pull the casualties from the debris.
Other than Kahramanmaras, several other regions in the southeastern provinces of Gaziantep, Malatya, Hatay, Kilis, Diyarbakir, Bingol, Adiyaman, Osmaniye, and Elazig were severely hit by the quakes.
The death toll stood at 2,316 in Turkey, said AFAD, with about 12,000 being injured. In Syria, 1,293 people were reported to be killed.
Late on Monday, Orhan Tatar from AFAD said in a statement that more than 5,500 buildings had collapsed. In Southeastern more than 6,400 people were rescued from the collapsed structures.
Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay said at least 145 shockwaves stronger than magnitude 6 were felt in the region.
People don’t feel safe inside
Ahmed al-Khatib, producer at Al Jazeera in Gaziantep, Turkey, said people have no idea where to go.
“Hundreds and thousands of cars are just moving in and out of the streets. People don’t feel safe even inside a mosque or a government building, they prefer to stay outside in the open. It’s freezingly cold and I’m shaking while I’m talking to you,” he added.
On the Syrian side of the affected region, the area is divided into the government-held territory and the areas under the country’s last opposition. The area is surrounded by Russian forces.
Meanwhile, millions of Syrians have taken refuge in Turkey amidst the civil war.
According to official reports, nearly 1,300 people were killed in Syria, according to Damascus Government figures. The White Helmets rescue workers were relocated to the opposition-controlled Northwestern region.
“Hundreds of families remained trapped under debris,” said the White Helmets. El Mostafa Benlamlih, a humanitarian coordinator in Syria, said “The infrastructure is badly damaged here and across the region.”
“Water supplies have been hindered and badly damaged.” “Many of them require replacement or extensive repairs.” Mostafa told Al Jazeera.
“There is an urgent need for assistance here.” He added that fuel is not available here and hospitals are badly damaged.
Temperatures to fall below freezing overnight
Extremely biting cold temperatures would delay the rescue operations to save the trapped survivors, said Dr. Steven Godby, a specialist in natural calamities at Nottingham Trent University.
“Working in war-torn areas could even further complicate the rescue operations”, he said.
Rain and snow were falling in the region.
The falling temperatures below freezing point overnight would make the conditions of people left homeless and trapped under the rubble.
Since 1999, Turkey has seen some of the most disastrous and devastating earthquakes. A tremor of similar magnitude had killed more than 17,000 in the heavily populated region of the Marmara Sea in the east of Istanbul.
President Erdogan has declared seven days of mourning, calling it a historic disaster.
“An earthquake occurs in the middle of the night, during the winter season, with harsh cold weather, but everyone puts their heart and soul into it and tries their best efforts in these traumatic times.” He said. Erdogan further added, “45 countries have stepped forward to offer help.”
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