Emergency crews made a series of dramatic rescues in Turkey on Friday, pulling several people, some almost unscathed, from the rubble, four days after a catastrophic earthquake killed more than 20,000.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake, an area home to more than 13.5 million people, early Monday morning and was followed not long after with another temblor almost as strong as well as hundreds of aftershocks.
With morgues and cemeteries overwhelmed, bodies lay wrapped in blankets, rugs and tarps in the streets of some cities.
Temperatures remain below freezing across the large region, and many people have no place to shelter. The government has distributed millions of hot meals as well as tents and blankets, but was still struggling to reach many people in need.
Even though experts say trapped people could survive for a week or more, the chances of finding survivors in the freezing temperatures are dimming. As emergency crews and panicked relatives dug through the rubble – and occasionally found people alive – the focus began to shift to demolishing dangerously unstable structures.
What’s more, the winter weather and damage to roads and airports have hampered the response of aid and rescue personnel.
In northwestern Syria, the first U.N. aid trucks since the quake to enter the rebel-controlled area from Turkey arrived Thursday, underscoring the difficulty of getting help to people there.
On Friday, the Shaam Network — a media group run by activists in the opposition-held part of Syria — reported that a U.N. aid convoy of 14 trucks had arrived there.
World Health Organization Director Tedros Ghebreyesus tweeted Friday that he’s heading to Syria.
And WHO Regional Emergency Director Dr. Richard Brennan said from Latakia, in government-controlled Latakia, Syria, that it’s “amazing the way the local community has responded. … Their resilience is inspiring. The aid has not started to flow at the level we would expect at this stage and this is what we’re working on right now. We have to help these people to help themselves.”
Mustafa Turan rushed to his hometown of Adiyaman from Istanbul hours after the quake struck to check on his relatives. He counted 248 collapsed buildings between the airport and the city center.
The journalist said Friday that 15 of his relatives had been killed and scores of people were sleeping outside or in tents.
“At night, about 4 a.m., it got so cold that our drinking water froze,” he said.
Turkey’s disaster management agency said 18,342 people had been confirmed killed in the disaster so far in Turkey, with nearly 75,000 injured. No figures have been released on how many have been left homeless, but the agency said more than 75,000 survivors have been evacuated to other provinces.
More than 3,300 have been confirmed killed on the other side of the border in war-torn Syria, bringing the total number of dead to more than 21,700.
The U.S. State Department confirmed Thursday that at least three Americans are among the dead in Turkey. Relatives and friends of a New York City family of fourthe four had perished in Turkey. It was unclear whether any were among the three mentioned by the State Department Thursday.
Engineers in Turkey suggested the scale of the devastation is partly explained by lax enforcement of building codes, which some have warned for years would make them vulnerable to earthquakes. The problem has been largely ignored, experts said, because addressing it would be expensive, unpopular and restrain a key engine of the country’s economic growth.
Before dawn in Gaziantep, near the epicenter of the quake in Turkey, rescuers pulled Adnan Muhammed Korkut from the basement where he’d been trapped since the temblor struck Monday. The 17-year-old beamed a smile at the crowd of friends and relatives who chanted “Adnan,” “Adnan,” clapping and crying tears of joy as he was carried out and put onto a stretcher.
“Thank God you arrived,” he said, embracing his mother and others who leaned down to kiss and hug him as he was being loaded into an ambulance. “Thank you everyone.”
Trapped for 94 hours, but not crushed, the teenager said he’d been forced to drink his own urine to quench his thirst.
“I was able to survive that way,” he said.
“I have a son just like you,” a rescue worker, identified only as Yasemin, told him after giving him a warm hug. “I swear to you, I have not slept for four days. I swear I did not sleep; I was trying to get you out.”
Dramatic rescues were reported elsewhere, including in the city of Antakya, where crews saved a 10-year-old girl overnight and on Friday. Elsewhere in Hatay province, in the city of Iskenderun, nine survivors were located Friday trapped in a building. Six were saved and work was ongoing to reach the others.
Elsewhere, in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, a woman was rescued more than 100 hours after the quake and rescuers were still trying to reach her child.
The death toll from the earthquake, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called “the disaster of the century,” has eclipsed the more-than 18,400 who died in the 2011 earthquake off Fukushima, Japan that triggered a tsunami, and the estimated 18,000 people who died in a temblor near Istanbul in 1999.
Some 12,000 buildings in Turkey have either collapsed or sustained serious damage, according to Turkey’s minister of environment and urban planning, Murat Kurum.
Aerial footage from over the earthquake zone in Turkey revealed entire neighborhoods of high-rises reduced to twisted metal, pulverized concrete and exposed wires.
In Kahramanmaras, the city closest to the epicenter, a sports hall the size of a basketball court served as a makeshift morgue to accommodate and identify bodies.
Some in Turkey have complained that the government was slow to respond – a perception that could hurt Erdogan at a time when he faces a tough battle for reelection in May.
Erdogan has been visiting affected cities over the last two days.
With the majority of Turkey’s media under the control of the government, television stations have been mainly focusing on rescue efforts, with hardly any reports on the hardship suffered on the ground.
Turkey’s disaster-management agency said more than 120,000 rescue personnel were now taking part in the effort and more than 12,000 vehicles, including tractors, cranes, bulldozers and excavators had been shipped.
The Foreign Ministry said 95 countries have offered help, and nearly 7,000 rescue personnel had been sent to assist.
— Khaled Wasef contributed reporting