BEIRUT — Search-and-rescue efforts were underway as the death toll soared from a powerful earthquake that hit southeastern Turkey and northern Syria early Monday. The quake and its aftershocks have triggered a new humanitarian crisis in a region already shaken by more than a decade of civil war in Syria.
More than 2,300 were reported dead and hundreds more injured in Turkey and Syria from the quake, The Associated Press reported. Hundreds of buildings collapsed in cities across the border region.
The 7.8 magnitude quake’s epicenter was centered about 33 kilometers (20 miles) from Gaziantep, according to the United States Geological Survey. It was centered 18 kilometers (11 miles) deep. Tremors from the earthquake was felt in Syria and as far as Lebanon, Cyprus, Iraq and Egypt.
The AP, citing Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management agency, reported that at least 284 people were killed in seven Turkish provinces. The agency said 440 people were injured. The death toll in government-held areas of Syria climbed to 237 with more than 630 injured, the AP reported, citing Syrian state media. At least 120 people were killed in rebel-held areas, according to the White Helmets.
In a tweet, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed “full solidarity with our ally Turkey in the aftermath of this terrible earthquake … NATO Allies are mobilizing support now.”
Images shared on social media from southern Turkey and northeast Syria showed panicked scenes of families running in the rain or snow amid the debris of collapsed buildings. In Lebanon, the quake was powerful enough to make whole buildings sway.
In northeast Syria, the quake caused multiple buildings to collapse. Footage from local journalists showed families running through the rain and the darkness in panic amid the debris of devastated homes.
“Truthfully the situation is disastrous,” Raed Saleh, the head of the White Helmets civil defense group which operates in northern Syria told NPR. He said cities and villages across northern Syria are affected. “In all these areas buildings have fallen to the ground and the teams are working on them. And all of these buildings have people under the rubble. The hospitals are all completely full. The situation is literally tragic.
“We can’t estimate the damages or know how many people have been killed,” he said. He said he saw three collapsed buildings “with families under the rubble” while on his way to the group’s operations room. Rescue teams are helping them as he coordinates the broader search and rescue mission. “I’m sending out calls for the people to stay outside their houses in the streets because of the damage. It might not be safe for them to stay at home as these buildings could collapse. But there’s a storm ongoing with rain and snow.”
Hamid Qutayni, a rescue worker with the White Helmets told NPR there are “tens of families” trapped under collapsed buildings. He listed how many people are known to have died in different towns and villages. “In Sarmada there are seven deaths; Ma’arrat Misrin has two deaths; Darkush has three deaths including a child. In Deres, there are also three children who have diedk villages in the northern Aleppo countryside have reported deaths and in the Idlib countryside too. The reports are coming in from everywhere because the situation is very bad.”
The earthquake in northern Syria hit parts of the country that have been already been devastated by more than a decade of civil war. In Idlib and Aleppo provinces, basic infrastructure has already been badly damaged by the war. The area is also home to millions of Syrians who fled the fighting in other parts of the country. Many live in refugee camps or basic tented settlements established amid the olive groves that run along the border with Turkey.
The Union Of Medical Care And Relief Organizations (UOSSM), an organization that provides health care in rebel-held areas of Northwest Syria, said “so far our hospitals in northwest Syria have received 91 dead and treated more than 500 severely injured victims of the earthquake. Four of our hospitals were damaged and evacuated. The remaining ones are overwhelmed.
Jomah al Qassim, a Syrian living across the border in the Turkish town of Gazientep works for Bahar Organisation, a charity that operates in Syria and in Iraq.
“According to our team in Syria, there are many casualties and damage to the buildings. Many are reported dead,” he told NPR. “This is the last thing people need in Syria. There has been crisis after crisis. People are already exhausted.”
The United Nations monitoring body, the OCHA, says of the population of 4.6 million people in northwest Syria, some 4.1 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. More than three million residents of the area are food insecure.
The region’s hospitals have been badly damaged in the conflict. Idlib is outside of government-controlled parts of Syria. Its hospitals have been repeatedly hit with airstrikes by the air force of the Syrian regime, or by its ally Russia. The airstrikes have been so frequent that doctors and aid organizations have set up medical facilities underground in an effort to shelter them from the attacks.
NPR’s Emma Bowman and Ayana Archie contributed reporting.