Hope fading as quake deaths near 12,000
With hope of finding survivors fading, stretched rescue teams in Turkey and Syria searched Wednesday for signs of life in the rubble of thousands of buildings toppled by the world’s deadliest earthquake in more than a decade. The confirmed death toll approached 12,000.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the especially hard-hit Hatay province, where more than 3,300 people died and entire neighbourhoods were destroyed. Residents there have criticised the government’s response, saying rescuers were slow to arrive.
Erdogan, who faces a tough battle for re-election in May, acknowledged “shortcomings” in the response to Monday’s 7.8 magnitude quake but said the winter weather had been a factor. The earthquake destroyed the runway in Hatay’s airport, further disrupting the response.
“It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster,” Erdogan said. “We will not leave any of our citizens uncared for.” He also hit back at critics, saying “dishonourable people” were spreading “lies and slander” about the government’s response.
Turkish authorities say they are targeting disinformation, and an Internet monitoring group said access to Twitter was restricted despite it being used by survivors to alert rescuers.
Search teams from more than two dozen countries have joined tens of thousands of local emergency personnel in Syria and Turkey. But the scale of destruction from the quake and its powerful aftershocks was so immense and spread over such a wide area – including a region isolated by Syria’s ongoing civil war – that many people were still awaiting help.
Experts said the survival window for those trapped under the rubble or otherwise unable to obtain basic necessities was closing rapidly. At the same time, they said it was too soon to abandon hope.
“The first 72 hours are considered to be critical,” said Steven Godby, a natural hazards expert at Nottingham Trent University in England. “The survival ratio on average within 24 hours is 74 per cent, after 72 hours it is 22 per cent and by the fifth day it is six per cent.”
Rescuers at times used excavators or picked gingerly through debris. With thousands of buildings toppled, it was not clear how many people might still be caught in the rubble.
In the Turkish city of Malatya, bodies were placed side by side on the ground and covered in blankets while rescuers waited for vehicles to pick them up, according to former journalist Ozel Pikal, who said he saw eight bodies pulled from the ruins of a building.
Pikal, who took part in the rescue efforts, said he thinks at least some of the victims froze to death as temperatures dipped to minus six degrees Celsius (21 Fahrenheit).
“As of today, there is no hope left in Malatya,” Pikal said by telephone. “No one is coming out alive from the rubble.”
Road closures and damage in the region made it hard to access all the areas that need help, he said, and there was a shortage of rescuers where he was.
“Our hands cannot pick up anything because of the cold,” said Pikal. “Work machines are needed.”
The region was already beset by more than a decade of civil war in Syria. Millions have been displaced within Syria itself and millions more have sought refuge in Turkey.
Turkey’s president said the country’s death toll passed 9,000. The Syrian Health Ministry said the death toll in government-held areas climbed past 1,200. At least 1,600 people have died in the rebel-held northwest, according to the volunteer first responders known as the White Helmets.
That brought the overall total to nearly 12,000. Tens of thousands more are injured.