Rescuers race against the cold to find survivors of deadly quake in Turkey and Syria

A powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked southeastern Turkey and northern Syria early Monday, killing more than 4,000 people and injuring thousands more as it toppled buildings and trapped residents under mounds of rubble. Efforts to rescue them accelerated as temperatures plunged.

More than 4,000 dead as buildings collapse in pre-dawn quake, with multiple aftershocks

A man walks while cradling a young girl.
A man carries a girl following an earthquake, in the rebel-held town of Jandaris, Syria, on Monday. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)
  • More than 2,900 people killed across 10 Turkish provinces
  • More than 1,100 dead in Syria, where quake adds woes to decade of civil war.
  • Many aftershocks have hit the region after the initial 7.8 quake.
  • Grief, calls for support come from communities in Toronto, Winnipeg and B.C. 
  • Several countries, international organizations say they're ready to send aid.

A powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked southeastern Turkey and northern Syria early Monday, killing more than 4,000 people and injuring thousands more as it toppled buildings and trapped residents under mounds of rubble.

Authorities feared the death toll would keep climbing as rescuers searched through tangles of metal and concrete for survivors in a region beset by Syria's 12-year civil war and a refugee crisis.

Residents jolted out of sleep by the pre-dawn quake rushed outside in the rain and snow to escape falling debris, while those who were trapped cried for help. Throughout the day, major aftershocks rattled the region, including a jolt nearly as strong as the initial quake.

People search through rubble below a collapsed roof of a building following a powerful earthquake.
People search through rubble following an earthquake in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on Monday. The powerful quake was also felt in Cyprus and Lebanon. (Sertac Kayar/Reuters)
People atop a pile of rubble, one with a tool raised above his head as he tries to break away the rocks.
Emergency team members and others search for people in a destroyed building in Adana, Turkey. (Khalil Hamra/The Associated Press)

Survivors cried out for help from within mountains of debris as first responders contended with rain and snow. Seismic activity continued to rattle the region, including another jolt nearly as powerful as the initial quake. Workers carefully pulled away slabs of concrete and reached for bodies as desperate families waited for news of loved ones.

Rescuers worked through the frigid night into Tuesday hoping to find more survivors.

"Because the debris removal efforts are continuing in many buildings in the earthquake zone, we do not know how high the number of dead and injured will rise," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised address. "Our hope is that we recover from this disaster with the least loss of life possible."

Şule Can told As It Happens host Nil Köksal she and her family, including their two-year-old daughter, were asleep in their apartment in Adana when it hit. She said it felt like someone was pulling the mattress right off the bed. 

"Immediately, you know, I just I just grabbed my daughter and jumped out of the bed," she said.

The shaking felt like it went on forever as Can and her husband struggled to flee their sixth-floor unit. She said they grabbed their coats and were about to go when an aftershock hit, forcing them to huddle in a doorway as they heard glasses breaking in their kitchen. 

When they were finally able to get to their car, they saw other people panicked in the streets amid collapsed buildings and other damage. 

"As we moved, we saw more and more people just coming out, not knowing what to do," she said. They were able to get to the university where she works to take shelter, but already knowing they have lost friends and family members. 

Tens of thousands who were left homeless in Turkey and Syria faced a night in the cold.

In Turkey's Gaziantep, a provincial capital about 33 kilometres from the epicentre, people took refuge in shopping malls, stadiums and community centres. Mosques around the region were opened to provide shelter.

WATCH | Scenes of terror, shock and heroism:

Turkey and Syria hit by huge earthquake

4 months ago
Duration 1:55
Desperate rescue operations are underway in southeast Turkey and northern Syria after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the region.

Scenes of death and devastation

Barış Yapar managed to escape his home with his parents, but they found his grandparents' buildings collapsed. The university student told As It Happens that after 19 hours, there had still been no help to try to find survivors in the rubble. 

"We're not receiving the help that we are supposed to," he said from his car in Samandag where they were sheltering. "We are just, like, left out in the dark. And everybody's just trying to do what they can. They're trying to hire some machines, bring some diggers."

Yapar said he is using techniques he has learned as a psychology student to help him cope with the "horrible things" he is seeing, including the death of lifelong family friends. 

"I was childhood friends with their son," he said. "And today I saw all of their corpses being taken out from those buildings."

More misery in war-torn region

The quake, which was centred on Turkey's southeastern province of Kahramanmaras, sent residents of Damascus and Beirut rushing into the street and was felt as far away as Cairo.

It struck a region that has been shaped on both sides of the border by more than a decade of civil war in Syria. On the Syrian side, the swath affected is divided between government-held territory and the country's last opposition-held enclave, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces. Turkey, meanwhile, is home to millions of refugees from that conflict.

The opposition-held regions in Syria are packed with some four million people displaced from other parts of the country by the fighting. Many of them live in buildings that are already wrecked from past bombardments. 

A before-and-after shot of a building impacted by an earthquake
(Reuters/Google Images)
Two rescue workers stand with their backs to the camera on top of a pile of rubble, their arms around each other.
Emergency team members pause for a moment as they search for people in a destroyed building in Adana. (Khalil Hamra/The Associated Press)

In the small Syrian rebel-held town of Azmarin in the mountains by the Turkish border, the bodies of several dead children, wrapped in blankets, were brought to a hospital. In the city of Kahramanmaras, rescuers pulled two children alive from the rubble, and one could be seen lying on a stretcher on the snowy ground.

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said 224 buildings in northwestern Syrian were destroyed and at least 325 were damaged, including aid warehouses. The UN had been assisting 2.7 million people each month via cross-border deliveries, which could now be disrupted.

At a hospital in Idlib, Osama Abdel Hamid said most of his neighbours died when their shared four-storey building collapsed. As he fled with his wife and three children, a wooden door fell on them, shielding them from falling debris.

"God gave me a new lease on life," he said. 

A young child bundled up.
A child rests while taking shelter in Osmaniye, Turkey, on Monday. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters )
Four men dig through the rubble of a collapsed building, searching for survivors, following an earthquake.
Rescuers search for survivors under the rubble following the quake in the rebel-held town of Jandaris, Syria, on Monday. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

The U.S. Geological Survey measured Monday's quake at 7.8, with a depth of 18 kilometres. Hours later, a 7.5 magnitude temblor struck more than 100 kilometres away.

Strained health facilities quickly filled with the injured, rescue workers said. Others had to be emptied, including a maternity hospital, according to the SAMS medical organization.

More than 7,800 people were rescued across 10 provinces, according to Orhan Tatar, an official with Turkey's disaster management authority.

At least 2,921 people were killed in 10 Turkish provinces, with nearly 16,000 injured, according to Turkish authorities. The death toll in government-held areas of Syria climbed to more than 650 people, with some 1,400 injured, according to the Health Ministry. In the country's rebel-held northwest, groups that operate there said the death toll was at least 450, with many hundreds injured.

The region sits on top of major fault lines and is frequently shaken by earthquakes. Some 18,000 were killed in similarly powerful earthquakes that hit northwest Turkey in 1999.

A man and two children sit in the red glow of a fire outdoors.
People gather around a bonfire following the earthquake Monday. Tens of thousands who were left homeless in Turkey and Syria faced a night in the cold and first responders had to contended with rain and snow. (Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters)
Before and after photos show the damage to a castle caused by an earthquake.

International offers of aid

Canada, the U.S., Russia, Germany and Israel were among the many nations offering to send help.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said members of the alliance were mobilizing support to help Turkey deal with the aftermath, with the European Union also saying it planned to mobilize aid.

Turkey's ambassador to Canada says what's needed most on the ground right now is search and rescue resources, as well as emergency medical help.

"Anything to protect people from the extreme cold," Kerim Uras told CBC News, "because at night it's below zero, far below zero, and people can't go into their houses even if they are standing." He said because of the risk of aftershocks, people are living in cars or tents or even just out in the cold. 

The second jolt in the afternoon caused a multi-storey apartment building to topple face-forward onto the street in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa. The structure disintegrated into rubble and raised a cloud of dust as bystanders screamed, according to video of the scene.

WATCH | Aftershock hits as CBC News reporter prepares to go on air: 

CBC reporter in Turkey experiences quake aftershock

4 months ago
Duration 1:25
CBC News reporter Dalia Ashry was preparing to go live on CBC News Network on Monday morning from Turkey when an aftershock from a devastating earthquake shook her surroundings.

The quake heavily damaged Gaziantep's most famed landmark, its historic castle perched atop a hill in the centre of the city. Parts of the fortress's walls and watch towers were levelled and other parts heavily damaged, images from the city showed.

In Diyarbakir, hundreds of rescue workers and civilians formed lines across a mountain of wreckage, passing down broken concrete pieces, household belongings and other debris as they searched for trapped survivors while excavators dug through the rubble below.

A dark-haired woman is shown in the foreground as several people look on amid a pile of rubble.
A woman reacts as rescuers search for survivors through the rubble of collapsed buildings in Adana, in southern Turkey. (Can Erok/AFP/Getty Images)
A wide view is shown of a destroyed building.
People walk next to a mosque destroyed by an earthquake in Malatya, Turkey, on Monday. The powerful quake knocked down multiple buildings, and occurred during a stretch of wintry weather. (DIA Images/The Associated Press)

Where the quakes hit

With files from CBC News, Morgan Passi and Kevin Robertson