DIYARBAKIR: A major earthquake struck Turkey and Syria on Monday, killing more than 3,800 people and flattening thousands of buildings as rescuers dug with bare hands for survivors.
Dozens of nations pledged aid after the 7.8-magnitude quake, which hit as people were still sleeping and amid freezing weather that has hampered emergency efforts.
Multi-storey apartment buildings full of residents were among the 5,606 structures reduced to rubble in Turkey, while Syria announced dozens of collapses, as well as damage to archaeological sites in Aleppo.
"That was the first time we have ever experienced anything like that," said Melisa Salman, a 23-year-old reporter in the southeastern Turkish city of Kahramanmaras.
"We thought it was the apocalypse."
The head of Syria’s National Earthquake Centre, Raed Ahmed, called it "the biggest earthquake recorded in the history of the centre".
The initial quake was followed by dozens of aftershocks, including a 7.5-magnitude tremor that jolted the region in the middle of search and rescue work on Monday.
"We managed to save three people, but two were dead," said Halis Aktemur, 35, in Turkey’s southeastern city of Diyarbakir after the quake that was felt as far away as Greenland.
In the southeastern Turkish city of Sanliurfa, rescuers were working into the night to try and pull survivors from the wreckage of a seven-storey building that had collapsed.
"There is a family I know under the rubble," said 20-year-old Syrian student Omer El Cuneyd.
"Until 11:00 am or noon, my friend was still answering the phone. But she no longer answers. She is down there."
Despite temperatures falling below zero, frightened residents in the city were preparing to spend the night on the streets, huddling around fires for warmth.
Nearby, Mustafa Koyuncu was sitting packed inside his stationary car with his wife and their five children, scared to move.
"We are waiting here because we can’t go home," the 55-year-old told AFP. "Everyone is afraid."
Turkish government officials said at least 1,651 people had died in the 7.8-magnitude tremor, with another 968 confirmed fatalities in neighbouring Syria, putting the total at 2,619.
The 7.8-magnitude early morning quake, followed by dozens of aftershocks, wiped out entire sections of major Turkish cities in a region filled with millions who have fled Syria's civil war and other conflicts.
Rescuers used heavy equipment and their bare hands to peel back rubble in search of survivors, who they could in some cases hear begging for help under the debris.
"Since I live in an earthquake zone, I am used to being shaken," said Melisa Salman, a reporter in the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras.
"But that was the first time we have ever experienced anything like that," the 23-year-old told AFP. "We thought it was the apocalypse."
The head of Syria's National Earthquake Centre, Raed Ahmed, called it "the biggest earthquake recorded in the history of the centre".
At least 810 people died in rebel and government-controlled parts of Syria, state media and medical sources said, while Turkish officials reported another 1,498 fatalities.
The initial quake was followed by dozens of aftershocks, including a 7.5-magnitude tremor that jolted the region in the middle of search and rescue work on Monday afternoon.
Shocked survivors in Turkey rushed out into the snow-covered streets in their pyjamas, watching rescuers dig through the debris of damaged homes with their hands.
"Seven members of my family are under the debris," Muhittin Orakci, a stunned survivor in Turkey's mostly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, told AFP.
"My sister and her three children are there. And also her husband, her father-in-law and her mother-in-law."
The rescue was being hampered by a winter blizzard that covered major roads in ice and snow. Officials said the quake made three major airports in the area inoperable, further complicating deliveries of vital aid.
Turkey's last 7.8-magnitude tremor was in 1939, when 33,000 died in the eastern Erzincan province.
Monday’s first quake struck at 4:17am (0117 GMT) at a depth of about 18 kilometres (11 miles) near the Turkish city of Gaziantep, which is home to around two million people, the US Geological Survey said.
Denmark’s geological institute said tremors from the main quake reached the east coast of Greenland about eight minutes after the tremor struck Turkey.
Osama Abdel Hamid, a quake survivor in Syria, said his family was sleeping when the shaking began.
"I woke up my wife and my children and we ran towards the door," he said. "We opened it and suddenly the building collapsed."
A spokesman for Syria’s civil defence said teams were scrambling to rescue trapped people.
"Many buildings in different cities and villages in northwestern Syria collapsed... Even now, many families are under the rubble," said Ismail Alabdallah.
The United States, the European Union and Russia all immediately sent condolences and offers of help.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky offered to provide "the necessary assistance" to Turkey, whose combat drones are helping Kyiv fight the Russian invasion.
Images on Turkish television showed rescuers digging through rubble across city centres and residential neighbourhoods of almost all the big cities running along the border with Syria.
Some of the heaviest devastation occurred near the quake’s epicentre between Kahramanmaras and Gaziantep, where entire city blocks lay in ruins under the gathering snow.
A famous mosque dating back to the 13th century partially collapsed in the province of Maltaya, where a 14-story building with 28 apartments that housed 92 people also collapsed.
In other cities, social media posts showed a 2,200-year-old hilltop castle built by Roman armies in Gaziantep lying in ruins, its walls partially turned to rubble.
"We hear voices here — and over there, too," one rescuer was overheard as saying on NTV television in front of a flattened building in the city of Diyarbakir.
"There may be 200 people under the rubble."
The Syrian health ministry reported damage across the provinces of Aleppo, Latakia, Hama and Tartus, where Russia is leasing a naval facility.
AFP correspondents in northern Syria said terrified residents ran out of their homes after the ground shook.
Even before the tragedy, buildings in Aleppo — Syria’s pre-war commercial hub — often collapsed due to the dilapidated infrastructure, which has suffered from lack of wartime oversight.
Officials cut off natural gas and power supplies across the region as a precaution, also closing schools for two weeks.
"The size of the aftershocks, which may continue for days although mostly decreasing in energy, brings a risk of collapse of structures already weakened by the earlier events," David Rothery, an earthquake expert at the Open University in Britain.
"This makes search and rescue efforts dangerous."
Turkey is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones.
The Turkish region of Duzce suffered a 7.4-magnitude earthquake in 1999, when more than 17,000 people died — including about 1,000 in Istanbul.
Experts have long warned a large quake could devastate Istanbul, a megalopolis of 16 million people filled with rickety homes.
Reacting to the deadly earthquake, Pakistan extended condolences over the loss of lives in Turkey.
A statement issued by the Foreign Office said that the government and people of Pakistan are deeply saddened to learn that a severe earthquake hit parts of southern Turkey, resulting in the loss of precious lives and extensive damage to property.
"The people of Pakistan stand in complete solidarity with our Turkish brethren in this hour of grief. We extend our deepest condolences to the bereaved families and pray for the early recovery of those injured," the statement read.
The FO also assured the friendly country of its readiness to extend every possible support in the relief effort.
"We are confident that the resilient Turkish nation will overcome this natural calamity with characteristic grit and determination," it added.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, meanwhile, also extended condolences and sympathies to President Erdogan and the people of Turkey and the government and people of Syria on the loss of precious lives.
"Deeply saddened by the news of a massive earthquake that struck southeastern region of Türkiye," he said.
"We send our heartfelt condolences & most sincere sympathies to the government and the people of Syria who have suffered major human and material losses from the devastating earthquake early this morning," he wrote.
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, while expressing grief over the deadly quake that claimed over 100 lives, offered his condolences and prayed for those who got injured.
"May Allah protect the world from national calamities," said Bilawal.
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