A powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck large parts of Turkey and Syria early Monday, toppling hundreds of buildings and killing more than 2,300 people, with hundreds more believed to be trapped under rubble.
The predawn quake’s epicenter was near Gaziantep, near the Turkey-Syria border, and was followed by another magnitude 7.5 earthquake about 100 kilometers to the north in the early afternoon.
On both sides of the border, residents were startled awake as they ran outside on a cold, rainy and snowy night. Many buildings were flattened into piles of flattened flats, and aftershocks continued to rock the region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at least 2,800 buildings collapsed, and Turkish authorities said nearly 1,500 people were killed and thousands more injured. Syria reported more than 430 deaths in government-held areas, while rescue workers said at least 380 others died in rebel-held areas.
“As debris removal efforts continue for many buildings in the earthquake zone, we do not know by how much the number of deaths and injuries will increase,” Erdogan said. “Hopefully, we will put these disastrous days behind us in unity and solidarity as a country and a nation.”
Awale Ahmed Darfa, a Somali student in Gaziantep at the epicenter, told VOA Somali: “A huge earthquake struck while we were sleeping…. The situation became critical very quickly. We heard screams, crying and people running. The buildings trembled as if they were shaken by Jinn. [evil spirits]. They all ran to where they felt they would be safe.”
The student added: “Now we are outside since we left our houses around 4 am There is a problem with being outside: it is raining, it is cold, it is windy and we do not wear protective clothing. Outside, everyone is wearing what they were wearing to sleep. Some people don’t have shoes. They told us we couldn’t go back into the buildings because of fear. [of aftershocks]. That’s the disaster here.”
The quake hit a region embroiled on both sides of the border by more than a decade of civil war in Syria. On the Syrian side, the affected strip is divided between government-controlled territory and the last opposition-controlled enclave of the country, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces. Meanwhile, Turkey is home to millions of refugees from the conflict.
Opposition-controlled regions in Syria are teeming with around 4 million people displaced from other parts of the country by the fighting. Many of them live in buildings that are already damaged by previous shelling. On Monday, hundreds of families were trapped in the rubble, an opposition emergency organization, the White Helmets, said in a statement.
Overburdened health facilities and hospitals quickly filled with the injured, rescuers said. Others had to be emptied, including a maternity hospital, according to the SAMS medical organization.
The region sits on major fault lines and is frequently rocked by earthquakes. Some 18,000 people died in an equally powerful earthquake that struck northwestern Turkey in 1999.
The earthquake on Monday destroyed the historic Gaziantep Castle and many other historic buildings in the area.
In the Turkish city of Mersin, resident Nurhan Kiral told the Turkish VOA service that the quake lasted for about a minute.
“We woke up to the shaking and got out of bed. Debris fell from the chimney. Debris fell from the empty space between the buildings. It was terrifying,” Kiral said.
The Syrian American Medical Society said its hospitals in Syria were “overwhelmed with patients filling the corridors.”
“Many hospitals are full, but some critical facilities, including Al Dana Hospital, had to evacuate patients after sustaining severe earthquake damage,” the group said in a statement. “Similarly, the Idleb Maternity Hospital was forced to transfer all newborns to a nearby hospital.”
US President Joe Biden said he authorized an immediate US response.
“Our teams are rapidly deploying to begin supporting Turkey’s search and rescue efforts and addressing the needs of those injured and displaced by the earthquake. US-backed humanitarian partners are also responding to the destruction in Syria,” Biden said in a statement Monday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement: “We are determined to do everything we can to help those affected by these earthquakes in the days, weeks and months ahead.”
The European Union said it had mobilized rescue teams to the region, with crews from Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania.
“Our thoughts are with all those who have lost loved ones and the brave first responders working to save lives,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Crisis Management Commissioner, said in a joint statement. Janez Lenarcic.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said their governments were ready to help those affected by the quake.
“Greece is mobilizing its resources and will help immediately,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said search and rescue teams, as well as medical aid, would go to Turkey in response to a request from the Turkish government.
Russia also said it had rescue teams preparing to go to Turkey to help earthquake victims in both Turkey and Syria.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also offered his government’s support.
“I am shocked to learn of the deaths and injuries of hundreds of people as a result of the earthquake in Turkey,” Zelenskyy tweeted. “We send our condolences to the families of the victims and wish a speedy recovery to the injured. Right now, we stand with the kind Turkish people and are ready to provide the necessary assistance.”
Turkey is located in one of the most active seismic zones in the world.
In 1999, 17,000 people died when a magnitude 7.4 earthquake — the worst to hit Turkey in decades — struck near Duzce in the country’s northwest.
In October 2022, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the Aegean Sea, killing 116 people and injuring more than 1,000. All but two of the victims were in Izmir, Turkey.
Some of the material for this article came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.