Anger grows over earthquake response as more than 20,000 confirmed dead in Turkey, Syria

Thousands who lost their homes in a catastrophic earthquake huddled around campfires and clamoured for food and water in the bitter cold, three days after the temblor and series of aftershocks hit Turkey and Syria, killing more than 20,000.

Emergency crews used pick axes, shovels and jackhammers to dig through twisted metal and concrete — and occasionally still pulled out survivors. But in some places, their focus shifted to demolishing unsteady buildings.

While stories of miraculous rescues briefly buoyed spirits, the grim reality of the hardship facing survivors cast a pall over devastated communities.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless in the middle of winter. Many have camped out in makeshift shelters in supermarket parking lots, mosques, roadsides or amid the ruins since Monday’s 7.8-magnitude quake, often desperate for food, water and heat.

In the Turkish city of Antakya, dozens scrambled for aid in front of a truck distributing children’s coats and other supplies.

A man in a uniform, similar to a firefighter's, stands looking weary next to rubble.
A member of the Lebanese civil defence rests as the search and rescue operations continue in the Syrian town of Jableh on Thursday. Road damage has hampered aid and rescuers from reaching the worst-hit areas in Syria. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

Ahmet Tokgoz called for the government to relocate people from the devastated region.

“Especially in this cold, it is not possible to live here,” he said. “People are warming up around campfires, but campfires can only warm you up so much.… If people haven’t died from being stuck under the rubble, they’ll die from the cold.”

Turkish authorities said Thursday that the death toll had risen to more than 17,100 in the country, with more than 70,000 injured. In Syria, which includes government- and rebel-held areas, more than 3,100 have been reported dead and more than 5,000 injured.

It was not clear how many people were still unaccounted for in both countries.

WATCH | Homeless survivors face hopelessness:

The enormous scale of earthquakes’ destruction in Turkey

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CBC’s Briar Stewart shows the full scale of the devastation in the Turkish cities of Pazarcık and Gaziantep, located at the epicentre of the second deadly earthquake that struck Turkey.

Hope dwindling

In the Turkish town of Elbistan, rescuers stood atop the rubble of a collapsed home and pulled out an elderly woman.

Teams urged quiet in the hopes of hearing stifled pleas for help but, more often, the teams pulled out bodies.

In Adiyaman, Associated Press journalists saw a resident plead with rescuers to look through the rubble of a building where relatives were thought to be trapped. The crew refused, saying there was no one alive there, and they had to prioritize areas where there may be survivors.

Black silhouettes of people seen from behind while they watch a digger in a lit-up pile of rubble.
People gather near the the site of a collapsed building to watch as rescuers search for survivors or bodies in the rubble in Kahramanmaras on Thursday. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

In Nurdagi, throngs of onlookers — mostly family members of people trapped inside — watched as heavy machines ripped at one building that had collapsed, its six floors pancaked together.

Mehmet Yilmaz watched from a distance, estimating that around 80 people were still beneath the rubble but that it was unlikely any would be found alive.

“There’s no hope,” said Yilmaz, 67, who had six relatives, including a three-month-old baby, trapped inside. “We can’t give up our hope in God, but they entered the building with listening devices and dogs, and there was nothing.”

Authorities called off search-and-rescue operations in the cities of Kilis and Sanliurfa, where destruction was not as severe as in other impacted regions.

Two people in hi-viz vests and headlamps look into a pile of rubble in the dark.
Hope of finding survivors is dwindling as time goes on. Here, rescuers continue their efforts in Kirikhan, Turkey, on Thursday night. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

UN aid reaches Syria 

In northwest Syria, the first UN aid trucks to enter the rebel-controlled area from Turkey since the quake arrived, underscoring the difficulty of getting help to people in the country riven by civil war. UN officials said more trucks were set to follow with assistance specifically for the current crisis.

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. Meanwhile, Syria itself is an international pariah under Western sanctions linked to the war.

The UN is authorized to deliver aid through only one border crossing, and road damage has prevented that thus far. UN officials pleaded for humanitarian concerns to take precedence over wartime politics.

In the Syrian government-held city of Aleppo, rescue workers pulled seven people out alive and 44 bodies from a collapsed building in the city centre on Thursday, state TV reported.

“We are racing against time. Time is running out,” said the Syrian paramedic group in the rebel-held northwest known as the White Helmets. “Every second could mean saving a life.”

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UN special Syria envoy Geir Pedersen earlier said people impacted by the earthquake needed “more of absolutely everything” in terms of aid.

Prior to the earthquake, the UN had estimated that more than four million people in northwest Syria, many displaced by the 12-year conflict there, depended on cross-border aid.

Women and children sit on the red carpet inside a brick building.
People take shelter inside a mosque in Jableh, Syria, on Thursday. (Yamam al Shaar/Reuters)

Erdogan sends mixed messages

Back in Turkey, some have complained the response was too slow. Any perception that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has mismanaged the crisis could hurt him at a time when he faces a tough battle for re-election in May.

Erdogan — who was scheduled to continue his tour of devastated areas on Thursday — has sought to play down the criticism.

“It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster,” he said the previous day. “We will not leave any of our citizens uncared for.”

Erdogan said the government would distribute 10,000 Turkish lira ($712 Cdn) to affected families.

In the Turkish town of Elbistan, rescuers formed human chains as they dug through collapsed buildings, urging quiet in the hopes of hearing stifled pleas for help. But more and more often, they pulled out dead bodies from under the rubble.

Several men stand with their backs to the camera, at various distances away, in front of a large pile of rubble and a huge orange digger.
Rescuers search for victims and survivors in the rubble of a collapsed building in Adana, Turkey, on Thursday. In places, crews have begun to demolish buildings. (Kyriakos Finas/SOOC/AFP/Getty Images)

Weary father relieved 

In Antakya to the south, rescuers pulled out a young girl, Hazal Guner, from the ruins of a building and also rescued her father, Soner Guner, news agency IHA reported. As they prepared to load the man into an ambulance, rescue crews told him that his daughter was alive.

“I love you all,” he faintly whispered.

Elsewhere in the city, Serap Arslan said machinery only started to move some of the heavy concrete covering trapped people on Wednesday.

“We tried to clear the debris on our own, but unfortunately our efforts have been insufficient,” the 45-year-old said.

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 earthquake’s toll is the highest worldwide since a 2011 earthquake off Japan triggered a tsunami, killing nearly 20,000 people.

The Turkish death toll could also surpass a 7.4-magnitude temblor that struck near Istanbul in 1999 and killed an estimated 18,000 people.

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