Tuesday, March 21, 2023 | Sha'ban 28, 1444 H
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Desperate search for survivors near quake’s epicenter

ANTAKYA, Turkey — As dawn broke on Tuesday, rescuers scrambled to use whatever they could — shovels, bare hands, random tools found on the street — to dig for survivors after the worst earthquake to hit Turkey in decades.

In the province of Hatay, buildings had collapsed into mountains of concrete, glass and twisted metal. Heavy machinery rumbled even as teams raced in freezing temperatures to find signs of life amid rubble strewn with muddy curtains, blankets, bags and other items from people’s homes.

Hatay, which borders Syria to the south, had Turkey’s highest-known death toll from Monday’s quake, which killed thousands and stoked fears of a humanitarian crisis.

A group of women gathered near piles of rubble, their faces streaked with tears and twisted by grief. One wailed for her two missing children, saying they could not die.

On the side of the road, a body lay wrapped in red.

When buildings in Antakya, the capital of Hatay province, fell down, families poured in from all over the country to help with the rescue of loved ones. One man cried for God to give him strength as others searched for survivors.

Around Hatay, residents said that only a few government rescue teams had arrived to help Monday, leaving civilians to sift through the wreckage. Though more government crews began turning up by Tuesday, most of the people the rescuers pulled from the rubble were already dead.

In Odabasi, outside Antakya, men wept as they recovered a body and placed it in a field.

Members of the Sahutoglu family gathered outside the private Antakya Academy Hospital, on the north side of Antakya, which was badly damaged. They had been waiting for more than 28 hours for word of five family members — a relative in the hospital and four male relatives who had gone to visit — who became trapped inside the hospital when the quake struck.

“No help has arrived,” said one member of the family. “No one has come to check on us. It’s as if they’ve totally forsaken this city.”

As the day wore on, glimmers of good news emerged. In the city center, a woman was pulled from the remnants of one building — alive, conscious and swaddled in a blanket. Onlookers cheered and applauded.

The street was too narrow for an ambulance to get to her, so she was rolled out to the main road nearby.

But for every person rescued, many others remained trapped. In the center of Hatay, bodies lay covered on the side of a street.

So many people flooded into Antakya to search for their relatives that traffic clogged the roads, blocking some ambulances, witnesses said.

Surviving the earthquake and aftershocks was just the first hurdle for many. There was no electricity or running water. Charities and aid groups had begun distributing aid in some places. But there was almost nowhere to buy food: Markets, cafes and restaurants were closed or destroyed.

More disturbingly, people walking in heavy rain in Antakya on Monday said they could hear cries for help from crumbled buildings but could do nothing.

“We can’t do this alone — we need machinery,” said Ayten Guckan, a 65-year-old resident of Iskenderun, a small coastal city to the north in Hatay. She was offering tea to anyone who wanted it from the back of her car.

Volunteers working with the search teams, who said they were receiving many calls for help, insisted they were doing their best. Like many residents, they declined to give their names, fearing government pushback.

“Our guys are playing with fire,” said one member of a search-and-rescue team, gesturing toward cracks in the lower part of a building where crews were trying to save a family. “This is the nightmare of any rescuer.”

In Iskenderun, people pulled their luggage down the main street, dodging the rubble that spilled from both sides, their destination unknown.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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