GAZIANTEP, Turkey (AP) — With hope fading to find survivors, stretched rescue teams toiled through the night in Turkey and Syria, searching for signs of life in the rubble of thousands of buildings toppled by a catastrophic earthquake. The death toll rose Wednesday to more than 11,000 in the deadliest quake worldwide in more than a decade.
Amid calls for the Turkish government to send more help to the disaster zone, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan toured a “tent city” in Kahramanmaras where people forced from their homes are living. He conceded shortfalls early on in the response but vowed that no one would "be left in the streets.”
Search teams from more than two dozen countries have joined tens of thousands of local emergency personnel, and aid pledges have poured in from around the world. But the scale of destruction from the 7.8 magnitude quake and its powerful aftershocks was so immense — and spread so wide, including in areas isolated by Syria’s ongoing civil war — that many are still waiting for help.
In the Turkish city of Malatya, bodies were placed side by side on the ground, covered in blankets, while rescuers waited for funeral vehicles to pick them up, according to former journalist Ozel Pikal who saw eight bodies pulled from the ruins of building.
Pikal, who took part in the rescue efforts, said he believes at least some of the victims may have frozen to death as temperatures dipped to minus 6 degrees Celsius (21 Fahrenheit).
“Today isn’t a pleasant day, because as of today there is no hope left in Malatya,” Pikal told the AP by telephone. “No one is coming out alive from the rubble.”
Pikal said a hotel building collapsed in the city, and more than a hundred people may be trapped.
There was a shortage of rescuers in the area he was in, and the cold hampered rescue efforts by volunteers and government teams, he said. Road closures and damage in the region have also impeded mobility and access.
“Our hands cannot pick up anything because of the cold,” said Pikal. “Work machines are needed.”
The scale of suffering was staggering in a region already beset by more than a decade of civil war in Syria that has displaced millions within the country and sent more to seek refuge in Turkey. With thousands of buildings toppled, it was not clear how many people might still be trapped underneath the rubble.
Turkey’s disaster management agency said the country’s death toll passed 8,500. The Syrian Health Ministry said the death toll in government-held areas has climbed past 1,200, while at least 1,400 people have died in the rebel-held northwest, according to volunteer first responders known as the White Helmets.
That brought the overall total to 11,000 since Monday’s earthquake and multiple strong aftershocks. Tens of thousands more are injured.
A 2011 earthquake near Japan that triggered a tsunami left nearly 20,000 people dead. Neither Turkey nor Syria provided figures for the number of people still missing as Pope Francis asked during his weekly general audience for prayers and demonstrations of solidarity following the “devastating” earthquake.
Syrian officials said the bodies of more than 100 Syrians who died during the earthquake in Turkey were brought back home for burial through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Mazen Alloush, an official on the Syrian side of the border, said 20 more bodies were on their way to the border, adding that all of them were Syrian refugees who fled war in their country.
While concerns are rising for those still trapped, Polish rescuers working in Turkey said they had pulled nine people alive from the rubble so far, including parents with two children and a 13-year-old girl from the ruins in the city of Besni.
They acknowledged that low temperatures were working against them, though two firefighters told Polish TVN24 that the fact that people were caught in bed under warm covers by the pre-dawn quake could help. The rescuers are currently trying to reach a woman who they know is in her bed.
Nearly two days after the quake, rescuers pulled a 3-year-old boy, Arif Kaan, from beneath the rubble of a collapsed apartment building in Kahramanmaras, which is not far from the epicenter.
With the boy's lower body trapped under slabs of concrete and twisted rebar, emergency crews lay a blanket over his torso to protect him from below-freezing temperatures as they carefully cut the debris away from him, mindful of the possibility of triggering another collapse.
The boy's father, Ertugrul Kisi, who himself had been rescued earlier, sobbed as his son was pulled free and loaded into an ambulance.
“For now, the name of hope in Kahramanmaras is Arif Kaan,” a Turkish television reporter proclaimed as the dramatic rescue was broadcast to the country.
A few hours later, rescuers pulled 10-year-old Betul Edis from the rubble of her home in the city of Adiyaman. Amid applause from onlookers, her grandfather kissed her and spoke softly to her as she was loaded on an ambulance.
On Monday afternoon in a northwestern Syrian town, residents found a crying newborn still connected by the umbilical cord to her deceased mother. The baby was the only member of her family to survive a building collapse in the small town of Jinderis, relatives told The Associated Press.
But such stories were few more than two days after Monday’s pre-dawn earthquake, which hit a huge area and brought down thousands of buildings, with frigid temperatures and ongoing aftershocks complicating rescue efforts.
Many survivors in Turkey have had to sleep in cars, outside or in government shelters.
“We don’t have a tent, we don’t have a heating stove, we don’t have anything. Our children are in bad shape. We are all getting wet under the rain and our kids are out in the cold,” Aysan Kurt, 27, told the AP. “We did not die from hunger or the earthquake, but we will die freezing from the cold.”
In Syria, aid efforts 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. Syria itself is an international pariah under Western sanctions linked to the war.
The region sits on top of major fault lines and is frequently shaken by earthquakes. Some 18,000 were killed in similarly powerful earthquakes that hit northwest Turkey in 1999.