ADIYAMAN, Turkey — Thousands of people left homeless by a powerful earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria a week ago huddled in overcrowded tents or lined the streets for hot meals on Monday, as a desperate search for those still alive intensified after all, we reached the last hours.
A crew pulled a 4-year-old girl from the rubble in hard-hit Adiaman 177 hours after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake. The rescuers were among thousands of local and foreign teams, including Turkish miners and experts, aided by service dogs and thermal imaging cameras, who searched for signs of life in the crushed apartment buildings.
While stories of near-miraculous rescues have flooded the airwaves in recent days – many of them broadcast live on Turkish television and beamed around the world – tens of thousands of dead have been found in the same period. Experts say that given the freezing temperatures — and the total collapse of so many buildings — the window for such rescues is almost closed.
An earthquake and hundreds of aftershocks, some nearly as powerful as the first, struck southeastern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6, killing more than 35,000 people and turning entire swaths of cities home to millions of people into shards of concrete and twisted metal.
About 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the epicenter, there are almost no houses left in the village of Polac, where residents salvaged refrigerators, washing machines and other items from destroyed houses.
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There aren’t enough tents for the homeless, survivor Zehra Kurukafa said, forcing families to share the tents they do have.
“We sleep in the mud, two, three, even four families together,” Kurukafa said.
In the city of Adiyaman, 25-year-old Musa Bozkurt was waiting for a car to take him and others to the western Turkish city of Afyon.
“We’re leaving, but we have no idea what’s going to happen when we get there,” Bozkurt said. “We have no purpose. Even if there was (a plan), what good will come of it after this hour? I have no more father or uncle. What do I have left?”
Fuat Ekinchi, a 55-year-old farmer, did not want to leave his home in Afyon despite the destruction, saying he had no means of livelihood elsewhere and had fields to tend to.
“Those who have means leave, and we are poor,” he said. “The government says: go and live there for a month or two. How do I leave my house? Here are my fields, this is my home, how can I leave it?”
Volunteers from across Turkey mobilized to help the millions of survivors, including a group of volunteer cooks and restaurant owners who served traditional dishes such as beans, rice and lentil soup to survivors who lined up at streets in the center of Adiaman city.
Other volunteers continued the rescue work. After rescuers pulled out the 4-year-old child, a relative told HaberTurk that there were other loved ones in the building.
As the scale of the disaster becomes apparent, sadness and disbelief turn to anger over a sense that the response to the historic disaster was ineffective. The anger could become a political problem for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces a tough re-election battle in May.
Meanwhile, on Monday, rescuers, including coal miners, found a woman alive amid the rubble of a five-story building in Gaziantep province.
But Eduardo Reinas Angula, a professor at the Institute of Engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the chance of finding people alive now was “very, very low.”
David Alexander, a professor of emergency planning and management at University College London, agreed. But he added that the odds were not good to begin with.
Many of the buildings were so poorly constructed that they collapsed into very small pieces, leaving very few spaces large enough for people, Alexander said.
“When a frame building falls over, generally speaking, we do find open spaces in the rubble pile where we can tunnel,” Alexander said. “Looking at some of these pictures from Turkey and Syria, there’s just not enough places.”
Winter conditions further shorten the window for survival. Temperatures in the region dropped to minus 6 degrees Celsius (21 degrees Fahrenheit) overnight. In that cold, the body shivers to keep warm, but it burns a lot of calories, meaning people who are deprived of food die faster, said Dr. Stephanie Lareau, a professor of emergency medicine at Virginia Tech.
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Many in Turkey have blamed faulty construction for the massive destruction, and authorities have begun cracking down on contractors allegedly linked to the collapsed buildings. Turkey has introduced building codes that meet seismic engineering standards, but experts say these codes are rarely enforced.
At least 131 people were under investigation for their alleged responsibility for building buildings that failed to withstand the earthquakes, officials said. On Monday, authorities in earthquake-hit Malatya province issued arrest warrants for 31 more people, while a construction manager and a technician were arrested in Kahramanmaras, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
The death toll from the earthquake in Turkey has exceeded 31,000. The death toll in Syria, split between rebel-held and government-held areas, has topped 3,500, although government reports have not been updated for several days.
Visiting the Turkish-Syrian border on Sunday, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths said the international community had failed to provide assistance.
Griffiths said Syrians “rightly feel left out”. He added: “It is my duty and our duty to correct this failure as soon as possible.”
In the Syrian capital Damascus on Monday, the UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, told reporters that “problems” with the flow of aid to rebel-held northwest Syria were “now being fixed”.
The Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria, meanwhile, said 53 aid trucks had crossed from Kurdish territory into quake-damaged areas controlled by rival Turkish-backed rebels in northwestern Syria that had previously prevented convoys from crossing. Turkish authorities consider the Syrian Democratic Forces a terrorist group, along with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Kurdish separatist group based in Turkey.
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