Rescue teams in Turkey and Syria worked through the night to find survivors after a powerful earthquake that devastated several major cities, killing more than 3,500 people and injuring more than 15,000.
On Tuesday morning, officials were pulling people out of the rubble and racing against freezing temperatures in southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria, where wind and sporadic snowfall have been reported.
The effort comes after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck near the Turkish city of Gaziantep in the early hours of Monday, toppling buildings over a vast area and setting off a series of aftershocks. A second, magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck a few hours later near Kahramanmaras, about 40 miles away, causing further devastation.
The death toll in Turkey reached 2,921 people, with 15,834 injured, according to Yunus Sezer, head of the country’s disaster relief agency Afd.
At least 650 people were killed in government-held areas in Syria, while more than 1,400 were injured, according to the country’s health ministry. In the rebel-held northwest, at least 700 people were killed and more than 2,000 wounded, Turkey’s state news agency reported, citing local officials and humanitarian groups operating in the area.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared seven days of nationwide mourning, saying, “As efforts continue to clear debris from many buildings in the earthquake zone, we cannot know how high the number of dead and injured will rise.”
Erdogan called the disaster Turkey’s “biggest catastrophe” since the 1939 earthquake, which killed some 33,000 people, underscoring the scale of the crisis.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for international aid on Monday, telling the General Assembly that survivors in the quake-hit country were “already in dire need of humanitarian assistance”.
The White House said US President Joe Biden spoke with Erdogan on Monday and promised to provide “any and all necessary assistance”. The US is sending search and rescue teams as well as healthcare workers.
Turkey’s Red Crescent humanitarian organization said it was sending emergency supplies “nonstop” including about 2,000 tents and 27,000 blankets, in addition to several mobile kitchens and catering facilities in the affected area.
The country’s central bank ordered local lenders not to charge transaction fees on money transfers to accounts collecting earthquake relief donations and eased conditions on certain types of loans given to companies in the troubled region.
In Idlib province in northwest Syria, “hundreds of families” were still trapped under rubble, according to the Syrian Civil Defense, a Western-backed aid worker also known as the White Helmets.
The region, one of the last remaining enclaves held by the Syrian opposition, is home to some 4.6 million people, most of whom are in need of humanitarian aid, according to UN figures. Many had fled after being displaced by the country’s more than a decade-long civil war and lived in informal settlements on the outskirts of cities, in open fields and in abandoned buildings.
Much of the region’s medical infrastructure was destroyed in the war, during which hospitals were regularly targeted.
A video published by the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports 36 medical facilities in the northwest, showed a chaotic emergency unit at a hospital in Aleppo. “Our hospitals are overwhelmed with patients filling the halls,” the group said in a statement.
Syrian state TV showed footage of rescue teams searching for survivors in areas controlled by the Assad regime, with health officials asking the public to help rescue neighbors and take them to hospitals.
According to the US Geological Survey, another 5.5-magnitude earthquake hit the city of Golbasi in Turkey’s Adyaman province on Tuesday morning. More than 100 aftershocks have occurred in the region since the first quake on Monday.