The most powerful earthquake to strike Turkey and Syria in nearly a century killed over 2,300 people on Monday, sparked frantic rescues and was felt as far away as Greenland.
The 7.8-magnitude early morning quake, followed by dozens of aftershocks, wiped out entire sections of major Turkish cities in a region filled with millions who have fled Syria’s civil war and other conflicts.
Rescuers used heavy equipment and their bare hands to peel back rubble in search of survivors, who they could in some cases hear begging for help under the debris.
“Since I live in an earthquake zone, I am used to being shaken,” said Melisa Salman, a reporter in the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras. But that was the first time we have ever experienced anything like that,” the 23-year-old told AFP. “We thought it was the apocalypse.”
The head of Syria’s National Earthquake Centre, Raed Ahmed, called it “the biggest earthquake recorded in the history of the centre”.
At least 810 people died in rebel and government-controlled parts of Syria, state media and medical sources said, while Turkish officials reported another 1,498 fatalities.
The initial quake was followed by dozens of aftershocks, including a 7.5-magnitude tremor that jolted the region in the middle of search and rescue work on Monday afternoon.
Shocked survivors in Turkey rushed out into the snow-covered streets in their pyjamas, watching rescuers dig through the debris of damaged homes with their hands.
“Seven members of my family are under the debris,” Muhittin Orakci, a stunned survivor in Turkey’s mostly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, told AFP. My sister and her three children are there. And also her husband, her father-in-law and her mother-in-law.”
The rescue was being hampered by a winter blizzard that covered major roads in ice and snow. Officials said the quake made three major airports in the area inoperable, further complicating deliveries of vital aid.
Turkey’s last 7.8-magnitude tremor was in 1939, when 33,000 died in the eastern Erzincan province. Monday’s first quake struck at 4:17am (0117 GMT) at a depth of about 18 kilometres (11 miles) near the Turkish city of Gaziantep, which is home to around two million people, the US Geological Survey said.
Denmark’s geological institute said tremors from the main quake reached the east coast of Greenland about eight minutes after the tremor struck Turkey. Osama Abdel Hamid, a quake survivor in Syria, said his family was sleeping when the shaking began.
“I woke up my wife and my children and we ran towards the door,” he said. “We opened it and suddenly all the building collapsed.”
A spokesman for Syria’s civil defence said teams were scrambling to rescue trapped people. Many buildings in different cities and villages in northwestern Syria collapsed… Even now, many families are under the rubble,” said Ismail Alabdallah.
The United States, the European Union and Russia all immediately sent condolences and offers of help. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky offered to provide “the necessary assistance” to Turkey, whose combat drones are helping Kyiv fight the Russian invasion.
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