KAHRAMANMARAS, Turkey — Yellow excavators dug long trenches on the edge of a pine forest here Thursday, rushing to provide burial space for hundreds of people recovered from collapsed buildings as authorities in Turkey and Syria announced the death toll from this week’s earthquakes had surpassed 21,000, making it the deadliest such disaster in more than a decade.
The makeshift, rapidly expanding cemetery just outside Kahramanmaras, a city near the initial quake’s epicenter, hinted at the massive effort that would be required in the coming weeks to bury the victims, as a small battalion of gravediggers, prosecutors, mortuary workers and others descended on the site.
Elsewhere, desperate efforts were still underway to rescue survivors and help the tens of thousands of people displaced by the earthquakes. A U.N. aid convoy crossed into rebel-held northwest Syria through Turkey on Thursday, the first since the earthquake disaster flattened neighborhoods in both countries.
Recovery efforts in Syria have been hampered by the effects of the civil war that divided the country into areas of government and opposition control. The United Nations said damage to delivery routes delayed aid to the rebel enclave, where millions of people are displaced and many live in camps.
The hope of finding more people in the wreckage was dimming on both sides of the border, and survivors and opposition politicians in Turkey expressed frustration at what they said was the government’s slow and haphazard response to the disaster.
Freezing temperatures have lengthened the odds, even as international teams arrive in Turkey with equipment and rescue dogs to detect the scent of humans beneath the wreckage. But in both Turkey and rebel-held areas of Syria, rescue workers continued to pull survivors, including young children, out of the rubble, in a race against time.
The death toll in Turkey rose Thursday to at least 17,674, with more than 72,000 injured, state media reported that Vice President Fuat Oktay said. The full impact of the earthquakes — which registered 7.8 and 7.5 on the Richter scale — was not yet clear, given the extent of the damage. Already, the quakes rank as the world’s deadliest earthquake disaster in more than a decade.
At least three U.S. citizens were among those killed in southern Turkey, according to the State Department.
In government-held parts of Syria, the death toll rose to 1,347, with 2,295 injured, state media reported. In Syria’s northwest, volunteer civil defense forces reported more than 2,030 killed and 2,950 injured, a tally they said they expect to rise.
On Thursday, six trucks carrying aid crossed into opposition-held Syria from Turkey, said Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Severe damage to the road normally used by aid convoys had delayed operations.
“On the Turkish side, we were able to identify two routes that we will be using from now on because the regular one was too damaged,” he said. “We consider this a test, that things can restart.”
Syria’s government has restricted access to the rebel-held region, where aid deliveries depend on votes by the U.N. Security Council. In 2020, Russia, a permanent member of the council, forced all but one aid border crossing to close.
The convoy on Thursday was carrying enough items — including blankets, tents and solar lamps — to meet the needs of “at least 5,000 people,” the U.N. International Organization for Migration said in a statement.
But the Syrian Civil Defense group, which is leading rescue efforts in northwest Syria, said the delivery was a resumption of normal aid, and did not include specialized assistance or excavation tools for its teams.
Syrians are “desperate for equipment that will help us save lives from under the rubble,” said the aid group, also known as the White Helmets, which operates in the region outside government control.
Before Monday’s quakes, humanitarian needs in northwest Syria were already at their highest levels since the civil war began, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said Thursday. The United Nations is deploying disaster assessment experts, coordinating search-and-rescue teams, and sending emergency relief — “and we are committed to do much more,” Guterres told reporters.
Across the border in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the city of Gaziantep on Thursday, where the quakes devastated residential blocks. He also visited the cities of Osmaniye and Kilis.
“With the scope and impact of the disaster we have experienced being this great, there may be some delays and shortcomings,” he said in Osmaniye.
Erdogan has urged citizens to be patient and pledged to rebuild shattered towns and cities. More than 6,400 buildings were destroyed, according to government estimates. He said the Turkish government would offer families 10,000 Turkish lire, or around $530.
Nearly 100 countries and hundreds of nongovernmental organizations have provided medical aid to Turkey, and more than 6,300 emergency personnel had arrived from 56 countries, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday. The World Bank also announced $1.78 billion in aid to Turkey for relief and recovery efforts.
A U.S. disaster response team in Turkey was helping with search-and-rescue operations in Adiyaman. And USAID administrator Samantha Power said the United States would provide $85 million in humanitarian assistance for people in Turkey and Syria.
In southern Turkey, survivors scuffled for tents and blankets distributed by aid agencies. Families with missing loved ones sifted through the debris without any assistance; in some places, heavy equipment has taken days to arrive.
“The situation is very bad,” said Mohammed Farhan Khalid, the leader of a team of Pakistani rescuers in the shattered city of Adiyaman. He compared the Turkish earthquakes to a 2005 quake in Kashmir that killed tens of thousands.
The disaster has also orphaned many children. Sixteen babies were flown from Kahramanmaras in the south to the capital, Ankara, to be cared for by state institutions, Turkey’s social services minister said Thursday.
Access to social media platforms Twitter and TikTok was restricted for some Turkish users on Wednesday. The internet-monitoring group NetBlocks later stated that Twitter services were restored after Turkish policymakers met with Twitter officials.
Ankara has previously cracked down on social media companies in the wake of disasters or during periods of political scandal or unrest. Erdogan is facing an election in a few months, and recovering from the earthquakes will be a major test of his two-decade grip on power.
A three-month state of emergency started Thursday in 10 quake-affected provinces in Turkey, after a vote in the Turkish parliament. The declaration will allow authorities to prevent people from looting stores and take action against groups trying to profit from the tragedy, Turkey’s disaster management agency quoted Erdogan as saying.
Dadouch reported from Paris, Francis from London, Pannett from Sydney and Parker from Washington. Amar Nadhir in Bucharest, Zeynep Karatas in Adiyaman, Turkey, and Paulina Villegas, Naomi Nix, Anumita Kaur and Semanur Karayaka in Washington contributed to this report.