The death toll from earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria passed 35,000 on Monday as a handful of survivors were pulled from the rubble more than a week after the disasters devastated swaths of both countries.
Emergency workers rescued 11-year-old Lena Maradini on Sunday, who had been trapped for over 160 hours close to the epicenter in Hatay, a European Pressphoto Agency picture showed. Another woman, Naide Umay, was rescued from the rubble nearby after almost 175 hours, according to a video by Reuters.
But as tears of joy and applause greeted the Lena and Umay being pulled from the rubble alive, death overshadowed most search operations as many rescuers and relatives resigned themselves to finding no one alive under the rubble.
Turkey’s disaster agency said on Monday that more than 31,500 had been recorded killed in that country. Another 3,500 deaths were reported in northwest Syria, according to figures by the Syrian health ministry and the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group in rebel-held regions of the country.
The death toll was expected to climb further.
Local rescue workers in Turkey have been joined by dozens of international teams. In the southern city of Antakya, Swiss volunteer Asar Taratas, 39, told NBC News that his group was struggling to cope with the sheer number of collapsed buildings.
“You need at least machines to have the chance to devise a plan in a place where there’s a lot of space to move,” he said, referring to the lack of heavy machinery like bulldozers and diggers required to move big blocks of concrete.
Those trapped could even survive for two weeks if given water and food while rescuers dig them out, he added.
The 7.8 and 7.5 magnitude earthquakes — and many aftershocks — hit southeastern Turkey and northern Syria on Feb 6. Officials have said this is the worst natural disaster to hit the region in a century.
Yehor Tuprunov, another rescuer, arrived in Antakya from war-torn Ukraine. His team had just recovered bodies of a Syrian refugee family who fled to Turkey in 2015 after their home was bombed by the Russians, he said.
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“It’s same like in Ukraine because you have destroyed buildings, so many bodies. We feel this problem in Turkey, that’s why we came from Ukraine to this place,” he said.
With hopes for additional survivors dimming with each passing hour, focus turned to helping those who survived, with tons of critical humanitarian aid and response teams arriving in Turkey.
So far, the U.S. Air Force had delivered more than 5,700 tons of life-saving equipment and disaster aid, the U.S. Agency for International Development said Sunday.
But in the sanction-hit Syria, aid delivery been hampered by a decade-long civil war and the availability of only a single border crossing for U.N. aid delivery.
“We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned,” the U.N. agency’s relief coordinator Martin Griffiths said Sunday in a tweet after his visit to the Turkish side of the crossing.
The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfields urged the U.N. Security Council on Sunday to approve two additional crossings for the delivery of lifesaving aid.
“People in the affected areas are counting on us. They are appealing to our common humanity to help in their moment of need,” Thomas-Greenfields said in a statement Sunday.
Speaking from the Syrian capital of Damascus, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “The compounding crises of conflict, Covid, cholera, economic decline and now the earthquake have taken an unbearable toll.”