Rescue teams were in a race against time Tuesday as they scrambled to reach people still trapped under rubble or injured without help in the areas of southern Turkey and northern Syria hit hardest by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that devastated the region.
With more than 7,000 deaths and 30,000 injured people recorded by the evening — figures expected to continue to rise — Monday’s quake, along with its 7.5-magnitude follow-up, is already one of the deadliest of the 21st century. On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a state of emergency across 10 regions that would last three months.
The clock was ticking. In the Turkish town of Nurdagi, a few dozen miles south of the epicenter, workers said hopes of finding more survivors were dwindling. Dozens of bodies waited outside a hospital.
Rescue operations in two Syrian towns hit by the earthquakes have already ended, the Syrian Civil Defense agency, known as the White Helmets, said Tuesday.
The search-and-rescue efforts in Atarib and Sarmada concluded because “we recovered all the bodies,” Ismail Alabdullah, a volunteer for the White Helmets, told The Washington Post.
Glimmers of hope punctuated the despair. In one video widely shared on social media, a rescue team working on a building in the village of Jinderis in rebel-held Syria pulled a newborn baby, naked and covered with dust and bruises, from the debris.
A doctor treating the baby, Hani Maarouf, later told the Associated Press that she must have been born under the rubble. Those rescuing the child had cut her umbilical cord.
But if the rescue was miraculous, the circumstances were tragic. The unnamed baby’s mother was dead, as were her father and four siblings.
The full toll in some areas, especially remote towns and parts of rebel-held northern Syria with crumbling infrastructure, may take some time to understand.
Speaking to the World Health Organization’s executive board Tuesday, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the global health agency was “especially concerned about areas where we do not yet have information.”
Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said at a news conference early Tuesday that more than 8,000 people had been rescued in Turkey alone. But the challenges have only begun, as authorities work to treat the wounded and find shelter for the displaced. In some parts of the country, people with nowhere to stay spent the night outdoors huddled around fires.
The scale of the task for rescuers remains enormous. The area that saw the most severe tremors runs hundreds of square miles; it includes not only well-populated towns and cities but also war-torn and isolated parts of northern Syria devastated by almost a dozen years of fighting.
How to help in an international disaster
Governments and organizations across the world have offered aid. More than 3,000 search-and-rescue personnel had arrived in Turkey from 14 countries, Oktay said at the news conference Tuesday.
Despite its international isolation following the brutality of its civil war, the Syrian government has received humanitarian aid, too. Even countries in the region opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad have provided help. The United States and other Western countries have said they will support nongovernmental aid groups in Syria.
For now, the political impact of the earthquakes is hard to predict. Announcing the state of emergency Tuesday, Erdogan appeared to lash out against his critics, saying that they “set our people against each other with fake news and distortions.”
Prosecutors would identify those who attempt to “cause social chaos through inhumane methods, and take necessary actions,” he warned.
In rebel-held northwestern Syria, home to almost 4.5 million people, many of whom were already displaced, members of the Syrian Civil Defense and other humanitarian groups called for urgent cross-border aid to respond to the quakes.
However, the United Nations said the lone link between Syria and Turkey that it approved for transporting international aid to northern Syria, known as the Bab al-Hawa crossing, was closed because of damage from the earthquakes. As the Assad regime is under sanctions from the United States and other Western nations, it cannot receive aid directly from many countries.
Bassam al-Sabbagh, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, said Monday that sanctions were exacerbating “the suffering of the Syrian people” and called for them to be lifted.
Tanya Evans, Syria country director for the International Rescue Committee, said electricity in the affected areas was intermittent, with many parts of northern Syria off the grid. Gas supplies were also severely impacted, leaving many without a way to heat their homes, even if the buildings were intact.
“We are still in the first 36 hours of one of the largest earthquakes to hit the region this century,” Evans said in a statement. “Multiple earthquakes and aftershocks yesterday and today have damaged roads, border crossings, and critical infrastructure, severely hampering aid efforts.”
The logistical issues were only just beginning. Stephen Allen, who heads the Disaster Assistance Response Team at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the fact that the United States was flying two urban search-and-rescue teams into the affected area from as far away as Los Angeles showed just how much outside help was needed.
“In this case, and I really do have to emphasize, it’s not a question of if they should come; it’s a question of can they come on time to be useful?” he said of the U.S. rescue teams. “And the window that we’ve got to get the U.S. teams on the ground, they will still make an impact. And so we are moving forward with it.”
The United Nations’ cultural agency is worried about several World Heritage sites that were damaged in the earthquakes. UNESCO said it was “particularly concerned” about the citadel of Aleppo in Syria, where significant damage was reported. “The western tower of the old city wall has collapsed and several buildings in the souks have been weakened,” the organization’s director general, Audrey Azoulay, said in a statement Tuesday.
Several buildings in the historic fortress and gardens in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir also collapsed, according to Azoulay. Named a World Heritage site in 2015, it was “an important center of the Roman, Sassanid, Byzantine, Islamic and Ottoman periods,” she added.
For rescue teams and those made homeless, unusually cold weather over the next week will worsen the situation. Computer models project that temperatures will remain about 10 to 15 degrees below average, with no sign of a thaw.
In Nurdagi, overnight temperatures are predicted to drop into the 20s through the middle of next week with daytime highs only in the 40s.
Further geological activity is also a threat. Alexandra Hatem, a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey, said the 7.8-magnitude earthquake ruptured a large portion of the East Anatolian fault, which saw a 6.7 in 2020.
“There have been numerous damaging earthquakes around this area, and we are trying to determine whether one of these would lead to a larger earthquake,” she said.
Taylor and Javaid reported from Washington; Fahim reported from Nurdagi, Turkey; and Dadouch reported from Beirut. Zeynep Karatas in Nurdagi; Victoria Bisset and Ellen Francis in London; Kelsey Ables and Niha Masih in Seoul; and Claire Parker, Missy Ryan, Jason Samenow and Ben Brasch in Washington contributed to this report.