Turkey-Syria earthquake: Death toll continues to rise as rescues dwindle in aftermath

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A teenager was pulled largely unscathed from beneath the rubble of a collapsed building in the Turkish city of Gaziantep early Friday, in a dramatic rescue that belied the reality that the chances of finding many more survivors four days after a catastrophic earthquake killed tens of thousands are shrinking fast.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the border region between Turkey and Syria, an area home to more than 13.5 million people, killing more than 20,000 people. Bodies lay wrapped in blankets, rugs and tarps in the streets of some cities, with morgues and cemeteries overwhelmed.

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Before dawn in Gaziantep, near the epicenter of the quake, rescuers pulled Adnan Muhammed Korkut from the basement where had 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 had been forced to drink his own urine to slake 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.”

The death toll from the earthquake, which Turkish Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called “the disaster of the century,” has risen to nearly 21,000, eclipsing 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 the Turkish capital, Istanbul, in 1999.

The new figure, which is certain to rise, included over 17,600 people in Turkey and more than 3,300 in civil war-torn Syria. Tens of thousands were also injured and many tens of thousands have been left homeless.

Aerial footage revealed the scope of devastation, with entire neighborhoods of high-rises reduced to twisted metal, pulverized concrete and exposed wires.

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.

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.

Hulya Kabakulak is carried after being rescued after 90 hours, as the search for survivors continues, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Hatay, Turkey, February 9, 2023. (Reuters)
Hulya Kabakulak is carried after being rescued after 90 hours, as the search for survivors continues, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Hatay, Turkey, February 9, 2023. (Reuters)

Workers continued rescue operations in Kahramanmaras, but it was clear that many who were trapped in collapsed buildings had already died. One rescue worker was heard saying that his psychological state was declining and that the smell of death was becoming too much to bear.

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.

In the Turkish city of Antakya, dozens scrambled for aid in front of a truck distributing children’s coats and other supplies. One survivor, Ahmet Tokgoz, called for the government to evacuate people from the region. Many of those who have lost their homes found shelter in tents, stadiums and other temporary accommodation, but others have slept outdoors.

“Especially in this cold, it is not possible to live here,” he said. “If people haven’t died from being stuck under the rubble, they’ll die from the cold.”

The winter weather and damage to roads and airports have hampered the response. 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.

Turkey’s disaster-management agency said more than 110,000 rescue personnel were now taking part in the effort and more than 5,500 vehicles, including tractors, cranes, bulldozers and excavators had been shipped. The Foreign Ministry said 95 countries have offered help.

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