Thinly-stretched rescue teams worked through the night into Wednesday, pulling the living and dead from the rubble of thousands of buildings destroyed in Turkey and Syria by catastrophic earthquakes and aftershocks that have killed over 11,000.
Amid calls for the Turkish government to send more help to the disaster zone, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited a “tent city” in Kahramanmaras, where people forced from their homes are living. He conceded shortfalls early in Turkey’s disaster response but vowed that no one would “be left in the streets.”
Turkey now has tens of thousands of aid personnel in the quake zone, the Disaster Management Authority (AFAD) said, according to the Reuters news agency, and search teams from more than two dozen countries have joined them. But with the devastation so widespread, many are still waiting for help.
In the Turkish city of Malatya, bodies were placed side by side on the ground, covered in blankets, while rescuers waited for funeral vehicles to pick them up, according to former journalist Ozel Pikal, who saw eight bodies pulled from the ruins of building.
Pikal took part in the rescue efforts and said he believes at least some of the victims may have frozen to death as temperatures dipped to 21 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Today isn’t a pleasant day, because as of today, there is no hope left in Malatya,” Pikal told The Associated Press by telephone. “No one is coming out alive from the rubble.”
Pikal said a hotel building collapsed in the city and more than 100 people may be trapped.
He said there was a shortage of rescuers in the area he was in, and the cold, road closures and damage in the region have also impeded mobility and access.
“Our hands cannot pick up anything because of the cold,” said Pikal. “Work machines are needed.”
The scale of suffering was also staggering in Syria, a region already beset by more than a decade of civil war that has displaced millions within the country and sent more to seek refuge in Turkey. With thousands of buildings toppled there, it wasn’t clear how many people might still be trapped underneath the rubble.
Aid efforts in Syria have been hampered by the ongoing war and the isolation of the rebel-held region along the border, which is surrounded by Russia-backed government forces. Syria itself is an international pariah and under Western sanctions linked to the war.
The United Nations said it was “exploring all avenues” to get supplies to the rebel-held northwest of the country, and on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said Egypt had sent a medical and rescue team.
Syrian officials said the bodies of more than 100 Syrians who died during the earthquake in Turkey were brought back home for burial through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Mazen Alloush, an official on the Syrian side of the border, said 20 more bodies were on their way to the border, adding that all of them were Syrian refugees who fled war in their country.
On Monday afternoon in the northwestern Syrian town of Jinderis, residents found a crying newborn still connected by the umbilical cord to her deceased mother. The baby was the only member of her family to survive when her family home collapsed, her father’s cousin told the AFP news agency. The baby’s father, mother, aunt and siblings perished.
Polish rescuers working in Turkey said they had pulled nine people alive from the rubble so far, including parents with two children and a 13-year-old girl from the ruins in the city of Besni.
They said low temperatures were working against them, though two firefighters told Polish TVN24 that the fact that people were caught in bed under warm covers by the pre-dawn quake could help.
Nearly two days after the quake, rescuers pulled a 3-year-old boy, Arif Kaan, from beneath the rubble of a collapsed apartment building in Kahramanmaras, which isn’t far from the epicenter.
With the boy’s lower body trapped under slabs of concrete and twisted rebar, emergency crews spread a blanket over his torso to protect him from below-freezing temperatures as they carefully cut the debris away from him, mindful of the possibility of triggering another collapse.
The boy’s father, Ertugrul Kisi, who himself had been rescued earlier, sobbed as his son was pulled free and loaded into an ambulance.
“For now, the name of hope in Kahramanmaras is Arif Kaan,” a Turkish television reporter proclaimed as the dramatic rescue was broadcast to the country.
Many survivors in Turkey have had to sleep in cars, outside or in government shelters.
“We don’t have a tent, we don’t have a heating stove, we don’t have anything. Our children are in bad shape. We are all getting wet under the rain and our kids are out in the cold,” Aysan Kurt, 27, told The Associate Press. “We did not die from hunger or the earthquake, but we will die freezing from the cold.”
As many as 23 million people could be affected in the quake-hit region, according to Adelheid Marschang, a senior emergencies officer with the World Health Organization, who called it a “crisis on top of multiple crises.”
Erdogan said 13 million of Turkey’s 85 million people were affected, and he declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces.
The region sits on top of major fault lines and is frequently shaken by earthquakes. Some 18,000 were killed in similarly powerful earthquakes that hit northwest Turkey in 1999.
How you can help quake victims: Click here for details and links to several reputable aid agencies that are helping earthquake survivors in both Turkey and Syria.