Turkey was battling to respond to a historic natural disaster after its biggest earthquake in almost a century flattened neighbourhoods across the country’s south-east and northern Syria, killing more than 3,000 people.
Monday’s 7.8 magnitude quake destroyed thousands of buildings when it hit shortly after 4am local time, sending people fleeing into the streets in near freezing temperatures. Yet more devastation was wrought by a second quake of 7.5 magnitude that struck hours later.
Regions of Syria impoverished by years of war were also badly hit by the quake, with tremors felt as far away as Lebanon, Egypt and Israel.
“Because the debris removal efforts are continuing in many buildings in the earthquake zone, we cannot know how high the number of dead and injured will rise,” Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said. He has declared a seven-day period of mourning across the country.
Underlying the scale of the challenge facing the nation, he described the disaster as Turkey’s “biggest catastrophe” since an earthquake in 1939 that killed about 33,000 people.
By Monday evening, Turkish authorities said at least 2,379 people had been killed in Turkey and more than 13,200 injured, with the tally all but certain to rise. In Syria, more than 656 people were confirmed dead in government-controlled areas, state media reported, while more than 700 perished in the north-west Syrian region controlled by the opposition, according to the Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets.
UN secretary-general António Guterres called for international assistance on Monday, telling a General Assembly session that people in the quake-hit country “were already in dire need of humanitarian aid”. US President Joe Biden spoke with Erdogan by phone on Monday, the White House said, and promised to provide “any and all needed assistance”. The US is also sending search and rescue teams, as well as personnel who can help with health services.
Turkey is criss-crossed by faultlines, and small tremors are a near-daily occurrence. A powerful 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck Istanbul and the surrounding area in 1999 and exposed poor construction standards that contributed to the deaths of 18,000 people.
Monday’s quake wreaked havoc hundreds of kilometres from its epicentre in Gaziantep, south-eastern Turkey, with dozens of aftershocks, as well as a second strong quake 60 miles away that hit in the early afternoon.
An initial Turkish assessment estimated that 6,217 buildings had been destroyed across the affected areas.
As interior minister Süleyman Soylu signalled his country’s willingness to accept international aid, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Russia and Azerbaijan offered assistance, state media said.
The country dispatched military and cargo planes with supplies for the rescue effort and the Red Crescent humanitarian agency sent mobile kitchens, more than 1,000 tents and almost 20,000 blankets to the area.
Turkey’s Islamic Relief aid organisation launched a $20mn fundraising campaign as it warned that its supply of mattresses, blankets and other bedding risked running out in hours.
In Idlib province in north-west Syria, “hundreds of families” were still trapped under the rubble, according to the Syria Civil Defence, western-backed aid workers in the region.
The area, one of the last remaining enclaves for the Syrian opposition, is home to about 4.6mn people, the majority of whom require humanitarian aid, according to UN data. Many have fled after being displaced by the country’s civil war and live in informal settlements on the outskirts of cities, in open fields and in abandoned buildings.
Much of the area’s medical infrastructure was destroyed in the war, during which hospitals were routinely targeted.
A video published by the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports 36 medical facilities in the north-west, showed a chaotic emergency unit at a hospital in Aleppo. “Our hospitals are overwhelmed with patients filling the hallways,” a statement from the group said.
Syrian state TV showed footage of rescue teams searching for survivors in areas under the control of the Assad regime, with health officials asking the public to help rescue neighbours and take them to hospitals.
“I thought the room was going to fall on our heads, the house was shaking so hard,” said Munsef Hamoud, an elderly man living in the suburbs of Aleppo. “Several houses collapsed in our neighbourhood and we heard people screaming from under the rubble.”