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Turkey-Syria earthquakes death toll passes 20,000, worse than the Fukushima disaster

Turkey and Syria earthquake deaths pass 20,000
Turkey and Syria earthquake death toll crosses 20,000-mark 03:57

Gaziantep, Turkey — Rescuers pulled more survivors from beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings Thursday but hopes were starting to fade of finding many more people alive more than three days after catastrophic earthquakes and a series of aftershocks hit Turkey and Syria, killing more than 20,000 people.

The U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey confirmed Thursday that at least three Americans were among the dead in that nation.

The quake that razed thousands of buildings was one of the deadliest worldwide in more than a decade, with the deaths surpassing even the toll from the 2011 earthquake off Fukushima, Japan, that triggered a tsunami, killing more than 18,400.  

Experts said the survival window for those trapped under the rubble or otherwise unable to obtain basic necessities was closing rapidly. At the same time, they said it was too soon to abandon hope.

3 people rescued under rubble 76 hours after 7.7 Kahramanmaras Earthquake
Three people are rescued from under rubble of a collapsed building in Gaziantep, Turkey  on Feb. 9, 2023 in the wake of major earthquakes earlier in the week. Basir Gulum / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

"The first 72 hours are considered to be critical," said Steven Godby, a natural hazards expert at Nottingham Trent University in England. "The survival ratio on average within 24 hours is 74%, after 72 hours it is 22% and by the fifth day it is 6%." 

The death toll keeps climbing.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday that 16,546 people were killed in his nation and more than 66,000 injured. On the Syrian side of the border, 3,577 have been reported dead and more than 6,300 injured, bringing the death toll in the two countries to over 19,700.

Risklayer, which describes itself as a "transparent and independent collaborative catastrophe risk firm in Germany and Australia," tweeted Wednesday that it projects the number of dead could wind up topping 45,000.

And the rating agency Fitch said Thursday economic losses from the quakes could be more than $4 billion, Agence France-Presse reported.

Turkey Syria Earthquake
Rescue workers and people stand next to the bodies of earthquake victims by a collapsed building in Adiyaman, southeast Turkey, February 9, 2023. Emrah Gurel/AP

Teams from more than two dozen countries have joined the local emergency personnel in the effort. But the scale of destruction from the quake and its powerful aftershocks was so immense and spread over such a wide area that many people were still awaiting help.

The first U.N. aid trucks to enter rebel-held northwest Syria from Turkey since the quake arrived Thursday morning. Smaller aid organizations have sent in shipments, but the U.N. is only authorized to deliver aid through one border crossing and road damage has prevented that thus far.  

Tens of thousands are thought to have lost their homes. In Antakya, former residents of a collapsed building huddled around an outdoor fire overnight into Thursday, wrapping blankets tightly around themselves to try to stay warm.

Ahmet Tokgoz, a survivor, called for the government to evacuate people from the devastated region. While many of the tens of thousands who have lost their homes have found shelter in tents, stadiums and other temporary accommodation, others have spent the nights outdoors since Monday's quakes.

"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." 

Serap Arslan said many people remained under the rubble of the nearby building, including her mother and brother. She said machinery only started to move some of the heavy concrete on Wednesday.

"We tried to clear it by our own means, but unfortunately we are very inadequately" prepared for the job, the 45-year-old said.

Selen Ekimen wiped tears from her face with gloved hands as she explained that both her parents and brother were still buried.

There's been "no sound from them for days," she said. "None."

Aftermath of the deadly earthquake in Pazarcik
People warm themselves around a fire on Feb. 9, 2023 in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Pazarcik, Turkey. SUHAIB SALEM / REUTERS

Erdogan was scheduled to travel Thursday to the quake-hit provinces of Gaziantep, Osmaniye and Kilis amid ongoing criticism that the government's response has been too slow.

According to the disaster management agency, 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 task is monumental, however, with thousands of buildings toppled by the earthquake.

Erdogan, who faces a tough battle for reelection in May, acknowledged problems with the emergency response to Monday's 7.8-magnitude quake, but said the winter weather had been a factor. The earthquake also destroyed the runway at Hatay's airport, further disrupting the response.

"It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster," Erdogan said. "We will not leave any of our citizens uncared for." He also hit back at critics, saying "dishonorable people" were spreading "lies and slander" about the government's actions.

Turkish authorities also said they were targeting disinformation, and the internet monitoring group NetBlocks said Wednesday that access to Twitter in Turkey had been restricted, despite it being used by survivors to alert rescuers. However, Twitter CEO Elon Musk tweeted Wednesday night that "Twitter has been informed by the Turkish government that access will be reenabled shortly."

And NetBlocks tweeted Thursday that "access to Twitter is being restored in #Turkey following hours of filtering. The restoration comes after authorities held a meeting with Twitter to "remind Twitter of its obligations" on content takedowns and disinformation."

Aftermath of the deadly earthquake in Pazarcik
A man walks past a partially collapsed building on Feb. 9, 2023 in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Pazarcik, Turkey. SUHAIB SALEM / REUTERS

The disaster comes at a sensitive time for Erdogan, who faces an economic downturn and high inflation. Perceptions that his government mismanaged the crisis could hurt his standing. He said the government would distribute 10,000 Turkish lira ($532) to affected families.

Syrians living in al-Teloul village in rural Idlib, a rebel-controlled area, had to evacuate their homes overnight after a makeshift dam the villagers built years ago collapsed and water overflowed from the al-Aasi river into their village, reports on social media said.

In Kabul, hundreds of Afghans, including women and children, dashed toward the airport after a false rumor spread that flights were leaving for Turkey to help rescue earthquake victims. U.N. special envoy Geir Pedersen had said earlier that people in the Syrian portion of the quake zone needed "more of absolutely everything."

Kabul resident Abdul Ghafar, 26, said he "heard that Turkey is taking out people, so I thought I can go and help people in need," adding, "Also this can be an opportunity for me to find a way out of the country."

Ghafar waited for three hours in the cold weather near the airport, heading back home after Taliban forces said there were no such flights to Turkey.

The Turkey-Dyria border region was already beset by the civil war in Syria. Millions have been displaced within Syria itself, and millions more have sought refuge in Turkey.

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 earthquake's toll has already outstripped that of a 7.8-magnitude quake in Nepal in 2015, when 8,800 died. A 2011 earthquake in Japan triggered a tsunami, killing nearly 20,000 people.

-- Khaled Wassef contributed reporting

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