Pakistan dispatches rescue team as the death toll in Turkiye-Syria earthquake tops 5,000

Overwhelmed rescuers struggled to save people trapped under the rubble as the death toll from a devastating earthquake in Turkiye and Syria surpassed 5,000 on Tuesday, with despair mounting and the scale of the disaster hampering relief efforts.

An official 51-member Pakistani rescue team was also set to touchdown in Istanbul today, federal minister Saad Rafiq said on Twitter.

In the Turkish city of Antakya near the Syrian border, where 10-story buildings had crumbled onto the streets, Reuters journalists saw rescue work being conducted on one out of dozens of mounds of rubble.

The temperature was close to freezing as the rain came down and there was no electricity or fuel in the city.

The magnitude 7.8 quake hit Turkiye and neighboring Syria early on Monday, toppling thousands of buildings including many apartment blocks, wrecking hospitals, and leaving thousands of people injured or homeless.

In Turkiye, the death toll climbed to 3,381 people, Turkiye’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) said.

The death toll in Syria, already devastated by more than 11 years of war, stands at more than 1,500, according to the Syrian government and rescue service in the insurgent-held northwest.

Freezing winter weather hampered search efforts through the night. A woman’s voice was heard calling for help under a pile of rubble in the southern Turkish province of Hatay. Nearby, the body of a small child lay lifeless.

Weeping in the rain, a resident who gave his name as Deniz wrung his hands in despair.

“They’re making noises but nobody is coming,” he said. “We’re devastated, we’re devastated. My God … They’re calling out. They’re saying, ‘Save us’ but we can’t save them. How are we going to save them? There has been nobody since the morning.”

Families slept in cars lined up in the streets.

Ayla, standing by a pile of rubble where an eight-story building once stood, said she had driven to Hatay from Gaziantep on Monday in search of her mother. Five or six rescuers from the Istanbul fire department were working in the ruins — a sandwich of concrete and glass.

“There have been no survivors yet. A street dog came and barked at a certain point for a long, I feared it was for my mother. But it was someone else,” she said.

“I turned on the lights of the car to help the rescue team. They took out only two bodies so far, and no survivors.

In Kahramanmaras, north of Antakya, families gathered around fires and wrapped themselves in blankets to stay warm.

“We barely made it out of the house,” said Neset Guler, huddling with his four children. “Our situation is a disaster. We are hungry, we are thirsty. It’s miserable.”

Ankara declared a “level 4 alarm” that calls for international assistance, but not a state of emergency that would lead to the mass mobilization of the military.

AFAD official Orhan Tatar said 5,775 buildings had been destroyed in the quake, which had been followed by 285 aftershocks, and that 20,426 people had been injured.

The Turkish disaster agency said 13,740 searches and rescue personnel were deployed and more than 41,000 tents, 100,000 beds, and 300,000 blankets had been sent to the region.

Aftershocks

The earthquake, which was followed by aftershocks, was the biggest recorded worldwide by the US Geological Survey since one in the remote South Atlantic in August 2021.

Another earthquake of 5.6 magnitudes struck central Turkiye on Tuesday, the European Mediterranean Seismological Centre said.

Monday’s quake was the deadliest in Turkiye since one of similar magnitude in 1999 that killed more than 17,000. Nearly 16,000 were reported injured in Monday’s quake.

Poor internet connections and damaged roads between some of the worst-hit Turkish cities, homes to millions of people, hindered efforts to assess the impact and plan help.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, preparing for a tough election in May, called the quake a historic disaster and said authorities were doing all they could.

In the Turkish city of Iskenderun, rescuers climbed an enormous pile of debris that was once part of a state hospital’s intensive care unit in search of survivors. Health workers did what they could to tend to the new rush of injured.

People take rest next to bonfire in the rubble in Hatay, after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country’s southeast on February 6, 2023. — AFP
People take rest next to bonfire in the rubble in Hatay, after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country’s southeast on February 6, 2023. — AFP

“We have a patient who was taken into surgery but we don’t know what happened,” said Tulin, a woman in her 30s, standing outside the hospital, wiping away tears and praying.

In Syria, the effects of the quake were compounded by the destruction of more than 11 years of civil war.

In the rebel-held northwest, the death toll stands at more than 740 people, according to the Syrian civil defense, a rescue service known for digging people from the rubble of government air strikes.

The civil defense said hundreds of families were trapped under the rubble and time was running out to save them.

Residents and rescuers search for victims and survivors amidst the rubble of collapsed buildings following an earthquake in the village of Besnaya in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province on the border with Turkiye, on February 6, 2022. — AFP
Residents and rescuers search for victims and survivors amidst the rubble of collapsed buildings following an earthquake in the village of Besnaya in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province on the border with Turkiye, on February 6, 2022. — AFP

“Every second means saving lives and we call on all humanitarian organizations to give material aid and respond to this catastrophe urgently,” said Raed al-Saleh, head of the civil defense.

A top UN humanitarian official in Syria said fuel shortages and the harsh weather were creating obstacles to its response.

“The infrastructure is damaged, the roads that we used to use for humanitarian work are damaged, we have to be creative in how to get to the people … but we are working hard,” UN resident coordinator El-Mostafa Benlamlih told Reuters in an interview via video link from Damascus.

The death toll in Syrian government-held areas rose to 812, the Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

PM Shehbaz is to leave for Turkiye tomorrow

Meanwhile, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb has said that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will depart for Turkiye tomorrow.

She tweeted that the premier will meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and express condolences with the lives lost in the earthquake.

Later in the day, Aurangzeb said that PM Shehbaz has decided to launch the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund to support earthquake victims in Turkiye in these difficult times.

“The federal cabinet has decided to donate their one-month salary to the relief fund,” she revealed.

Separately, PM Shehbaz said in a tweet that the destruction in Turkiye and Syria was mind-numbing.

“24 hours after the devastating earthquake hit Turkiye & Syria, scenes of death and destruction are mind-numbing. It breaks the heart to witness the sheer scale of unfolding human tragedy,” he said.

The premier added that solidarity with Turkiye and Syria should translate into “tangible and timely material support for suffering humanity”.

The first batch of relief items arrive in Turkiye

On Tuesday morning, the first batch of relief items from Pakistan reached Turkiye, a Pakistan Air Force spokesperson said.

“Pakistan Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft carrying members of search and rescue teams and blankets from PAF Base, Nur Khan has landed in Turkiye,” he said in a statement.

The PAF aircraft is carrying relief goods from the people of Pakistan for the earthquake-affected brethren of Turkiye, the spokesperson added.

Earlier, the Pakistan Army’s media wing said that two contingents; an urban search and rescue team — comprising rescue experts, sniffer dogs, and search equipment and a Medical team comprising army doctors, nursing staff, and technicians along with 30 bedded mobile hospital, tentage, blankets — and other relief items had been dispatched to Turkiye.

“The aid contingents have flown to Adana via a special Pakistan Air Force aircraft on the night of February 6-7, 2023, to undertake relief efforts for the Turkish people while working in close coordination with the Turkish government, AFs, and their Embassy in Islamabad,” a statement issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said.

It stated that the contingents would stay in Turkiye until the completion of the relief and rescue operation.

“People and AFs of Pakistan stand with our Turk brethren and offer all available support in this hour of need,” the statement added.

Additionally, Minister for Railways Khawaja Saad Rafique said that a Pakistan International Airline (PIA) airplane will take a 51-member rescue team to Istanbul today.

“PK-707 will depart from Lahore for Istanbul with the Pakistani rescue team and their special equipment,” he tweeted, adding that measures for the delivery of relief items had also been completed.

Rafique further said that the delivery of relief goods has been made cost-free on all PIA flights to Istanbul and Damascus. The items can be delivered to PIA’s cargo terminal through the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).