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With over 20,000 dead, hopes fade for finding Turkey and Syria quake survivors

Syrians warm up by a fire at a make-shift shelter for people who were left homeless, near the rebel-held town of Jindayris on Feb. 8, 2023.
AFP via Getty Images
Syrians warm up by a fire at a make-shift shelter for people who were left homeless, near the rebel-held town of Jindayris on Feb. 8, 2023.

Updated February 9, 2023 at 10:22 AM ET

ISTANBUL — Rescue workers pressed their search Thursday across Turkey and Syria for survivors from this week's massive earthquake and aftershocks as the window to find people alive began to close.

Rescue crews braved freezing temperatures to pull bodies from the rubble of thousands of buildings that have toppled throughout southern Turkey and northern Syria. The 72-hour mark since Monday's magnitude 7.8 earthquake has now passed, a critical time window that experts say is when most survivors from disasters are found.

More than three days after the quake and aftershocks hit the two countries, the number of dead surpassed 20,000, according to The Associated Press. Turkey's government said that in addition to more than 17,000 people killed in the country, more than 64,000 have been injured. In neighboring Syria, more than 3,100 have been reported dead and more than 5,000 injured.

The magnitude 7.8 quake, which occurred in southern Turkey and collapsed buildings in that country and Syria, is the deadliest seismic event in the world in more than a decade. A 2011 earthquake in Japan triggered a tsunami that killed more than 19,000 people.

An estimated 13.5 million people in Turkey are affected by the quake, with millions more in Syria.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres confirmed on Thursday that the first U.N. relief convoy crossed into northern Syria. "More help is on the way, but much more, much more is needed," he told reporters.

On Wednesday, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Kahramanmaras, a city near the epicenter of the quake, telling survivors that "we are face to face with a great disaster." There is growing public anger that the rescue response has been slow, and Erdogan acknowledged there were shortfalls by his government in the immediate aftermath of the quake. The president cited winter weather conditions and destroyed infrastructure, including airport runways, as complicating factors.

Erdogan and aid workers said the scale of the quake was so large that it was difficult to reach everyone everywhere. Erdogan said nobody would be "left in the streets."

The rising numbers reflected the grim task officials and survivors face in the two countries:

  • Turkey reported that more than 380,000 people are displaced.
  • Syria reported that 298,000 of its citizens are displaced, but those figures were in government-controlled parts of the country. Opposition-controlled areas have not yet reported this number.
  • Turkey's emergency management agency said it has set up at least 92,000 tents and sent more than 5,000 vehicles to the region.
  • There are 98,000 Turkish and international rescuers dispatched to the region.
  • Destruction from the quake stretched along a 200-mile-long swath of mountains.
  • An estimated 13.5 million people in Turkey are impacted by the quake with millions more in Syria.
  • Istanbul's stock exchange closed until Feb. 15 after initial trading showed rapid declines, triggering a circuit breaker when declines reached 7%. The Turkish economy was already reeling from out-of-control inflation.

    Syria has blamed Western sanctions for aid not reaching northern Syria, but the U.S. government said sanctions do not impact humanitarian assistance. U.N. Secretary-General Guterres told reporters on Thursday, "This is a moment in which everybody must make very clear that no sanctions of any kind interfere with relief to the population of Syria in the present moment."

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Rob Schmitz
    Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
    Ruth Sherlock
    Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
    Kevin Drew