Over 2,700 people were killed, and thousands more were injured when two major earthquakes struck Turkey and Syria on Monday. Hundreds of buildings collapsed and buried residents under their wreckage.
The initial earthquake struck when residents were sleeping. At a magnitude of 7.8, it is one of the strongest to hit the area in at least a century, with its effects being felt as far away as Cyprus and Cairo. Several hours later, another earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.7, struck 42 miles northeast of Kahramanmaras, Turkey.
Some people were able to escape, running outside into the snow and rain, while others were trapped under rubble, yelling for help. Over 100 aftershocks continued to pummel the area throughout the day, including one nearly as powerful as the first earthquake.
A video captured the moment a multistory apartment building in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa collapsed face-first onto the street, crumbling into rubble and producing a cloud of dust amid the screams of onlookers.
Orhan Tatar, an official from Turkey’s disaster management agency, said that particular aftershock was a new earthquake. However, a USGS seismologist, Yaareb Altaweel, said it was considered an aftershock because it occurred on the same fault line.
The official toll in Turkey stands at 1,651 deaths and 11,119 injuries. Many people are still missing after 2,818 buildings collapsed.
According to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the final number of casualties is unknown as of right now. The Turkish military has created an air corridor so rescue workers can fly to the disaster area to quickly aid those who are hurt or trapped.
“Because the debris removal efforts are continuing in many buildings in the earthquake zone, we do not know how high the number of dead and injured will rise.”
In Syria, the earthquake struck regions in both government-held territory and the rebel-occupied northwest area. According to the Syrian state news agency SANA, more than 1,050 people are dead, and 1,280 are injured. The region the government does not control reports at least 480 of those deaths, with hundreds wounded.
Dozens of nations, the European Union, and NATO all offered some form of assistance, including search-and-rescue teams, medical supplies, and financial aid. The majority were earmarked for Turkey, with Russia and Israel extending assistance to the Syrian government. It is unclear if any aid will reach the rebel-held northwest region in Syria.
The International Rescue Committee called for increased funding for humanitarian aid in Syria, stating it was a “crisis within multiple crises.”
“This earthquake is yet another devastating blow to so many vulnerable populations already struggling after years of conflict. Women and children will find themselves particularly at risk of exploitation and abuse should they find themselves once again displaced. Many in northwest Syria have been displaced up to 20 times, and with health facilities strained beyond capacity, even before this tragedy, many did not have access to the health care they critically need.”
Rescue workers said injured patients inundated health facilities and hospitals. The White Helmets, an unarmed and neutral organization of more than 3,000 volunteer rescue workers operating in opposition-held areas of Syria, declared that the country was a disaster area.
“We call on all local authorities and civil forces to mobilize their cadres, and we recommend all humanitarian, health and relief organizations operating in Syria share work according to the system of parity and their geographical distribution in order to ensure that the necessary needs are covered as much as possible.”
Some 4 million people displaced from other parts of the country due to the civil war live in the region. Many of the buildings were already damaged from past bombardments. The area also sits atop major fault lines, causing it to be frequently struck by earthquakes.
Large-scale natural disasters typically have high fatality rates. In Turkey, President Erdogan has stated that the weather is making the rescue effort more difficult and has cut down on rescuers’ time to free those trapped.
“Everyone is putting their heart and soul into efforts, although the winter season, cold weather and the earthquake happening during the night make things more difficult.”
The traffic congestion due to people fleeing the earthquake-hit areas has slowed the efforts of emergency teams. Mosques in the region have opened their doors to provide shelter to people unable to return to their homes in freezing temperatures.
In northwest Syria, the earthquake exacerbated the plight of the opposition enclave centered on the province of Idlib, which has been under siege for years due to frequent Russian and government airstrikes. Working in areas plagued by civil war will only further complicate rescue operations.
At a hospital in Idlib, Osama Abdel Hamid told The Associated Press that most of his neighbors were killed by his apartment building’s collapse. The four-story building fell apart just as he, his wife, and three children ran toward the exit. A wooden door that had been knocked over protected them from falling rubble.
“The building is four stories, and from three of them, no one made it out. God gave me a new lease on life.”
Ismail Abdullah, a volunteer with the White Helmets rescuers from the village of Sarmada, told the Guardian that, at first, he thought helicopters were dropping barrel bombs.
“We are used to digging people out of the rubble, but this is different. So many people are still stuck, and they will die because we don’t have enough equipment to get to them all. There is nothing left, nothing at all.”
Aid from neighboring Turkey is essential, as the territory relies on it for everything from food to medicine.
Meanwhile, Huseyin Yayman, a legislator from Turkey’s Hatay province, told HaberTurk television that several of his family members were stuck under the rubble of their collapsed homes.
“There are so many other people who are also trapped. There are so many buildings that have been damaged. People are on the streets. It’s raining. It’s winter.”
President Joe Biden released a statement addressing the disaster, saying he was “deeply saddened” by the loss of life.
“Jill and I were deeply saddened by the news of the devastating earthquakes that have thus far claimed thousands of lives in Turkiye and Syria. My Administration has been working closely with our NATO Ally, Turkiye, and I authorized an immediate U.S. response. At my direction, senior American officials reached out immediately to their Turkish counterparts to coordinate any and all needed assistance. Our teams are deploying quickly to begin to support Turkish search and rescue efforts and address the needs of those injured and displaced by the earthquake. U.S.-supported humanitarian partners are also responding to the destruction in Syria. Today, our hearts and our deepest condolences are with all those who have lost precious loved ones, those who are injured, and those who saw their homes and businesses destroyed.”
According to Reuters, the United States is sending two 79-person search and rescue teams to assist Turkish officials in the rescue efforts.
Moumita Basuroychowdhury is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest. After earning an economics degree at Cornell University, she moved to NYC to pursue her MFA in creative writing. She enjoys reporting on science, business and culture news. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.