Stories of hope, heartbreak emerge after destructive earthquakes kill thousands in Turkey and Syria

Rescue and recovery efforts in Turkey and Syria have been happening around the clock since powerful earthquakes shook the two countries, bringing down buildings and burying thousands of people inside the homes where they slept.

Rescue crews pulled young children from collapsed buildings, as survivors wait for help rescuing loved ones

Crews in Turkey rescue sleepy toddler from rubble

4 months ago
Duration 0:32
A team of rescuers combed through the rubble of a collapsed building, 24 hours after powerful earthquakes hit the country, to pull a young boy to safety. The toddler appeared to be surprised to have been woken up by the rescuers who greeted him with a friendly "Good morning."

Rescue and recovery efforts in Turkey and Syria have been happening around the clock since powerful earthquakes shook the two countries, bringing down buildings and burying thousands of people inside the homes where they slept.

But emergency officials and aid workers know time is limited to save people who may still be alive.

"It's a race against time because the weather is so, so cold. It's been raining. It's been snowing. There have been heavy rains, heavy winds and the temperatures are below zero. So we need to find people as soon as possible because people are stuck under [the] rubbles," Hombeline Dulière, of the British charity Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, told Reuters news agency. 

Crews of rescue workers and volunteers are digging through mounds of crumbled concrete across southern Turkey and northern Syria, trying to reach anyone who may have survived beneath collapsed buildings.

As the death toll climbs further into the thousands, stories are emerging from survivors, of both heartbreak and hope against the odds. 

A line of people stand along a mound of concrete rubble.
Members of the search and rescue group known as the White Helmets dig through the rubble of a collapsed building in Bisnia, Syria, following powerful earthquakes that rocked the region on Monday. (White Helmets/Reuters)

Rescuing the most vulnerable

In Syria, an infant who was reportedly born underneath the rubble was pulled to safety in the northwestern town of Jinderes, an area controlled by opposition rebels. The baby girl was found with her umbilical cord attached to her mother, who did not survive.

She was taken to a hospital, in the city of Afrin, where she is receiving care.

Watch | Rescuer rushes newborn baby to safety from beneath rubble in Syria:

Baby born during earthquake in Syria in stable condition

4 months ago
Duration 2:07
In Syria, a baby born during Monday's earthquake miraculously survived after being pulled from the rubble. It was a moment of hope in the battered country where the ongoing civil war is making relief efforts difficult.

In that same devastated city, a four-year-old girl named Noor was found buried under broken blocks of concrete and mangled rebar. In a video shared by Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, an unidentified volunteer tried to comfort the child as he cleared the debris around her.

"[Your] father is here. Don't be scared, Noor, please look at me here. Talk to your father. See! Here's your father," he said, as the dazed girl looks for his face. 

As the man picks her up, saying "Allahu akbar [God is great]," one can see in the video how lucky she was to survive. Another volunteer has to reach past a corpse lying on a slab of concrete above. 

In the Turkish province of Hatay, another four-year-old girl defied the odds by surviving more than 33 hours trapped on the first floor of a ruined three-storey building. Video shared by Turkish news outlet showed the moment she was carried to safety with relatives looking on.

Watch | Young Syrian girl pulled from collapsed building:

A joyous moment as Syrian child rescued from deep rubble

4 months ago
Duration 0:37
A young Syrian girl was rescued Tuesday from deep debris in Jindires, Syria, after the building she was in collapsed.

Though these stories are heartening, the United Nations children's agency is bracing for a tragic loss of young lives. 

"The earthquakes that hit southern Turkey and northern Syria early [Monday] morning may have killed thousands of children," UNICEF spokesperson James Elder told reporters at a briefing in Geneva. But he added the organization could not determine a specific death toll of children at this time.

Survival after disaster

For the families who made it out of their homes, the past two days have been arduous but there is gratitude 

"God gave me a new lease on life," said Osama Abdel Hamid, from the village of Azmarin, in Syria's Idlib province.

He and his wife and four children were sleeping in their apartment when they were roused by powerful, prolonged shaking.They ran from the apartment, but "before we reached the door of the building, the whole building came down on us," he said.

Earthquake victims, including a man sitting on a cot next to a young patient, are treated at the al-Rahma Hospital in Karkush town, in northern Syria.
Earthquake victims receive treatment at the al-Rahma Hospital in the town of Darkush in Idlib province, northern Syria, on Monday. (Ghaith Alsayed/The Associated Press)

A wooden door shielded them from the worst force of the collapse. He and his wife and three of the children suffered head injuries, but are all in stable condition at a hospital in nearby Darkush. 

He told the Associated Press many of his neighbours weren't as fortunate as his family. 

"The building is four stories, and from three of them, no one made it out," Abdul Hamid said, breaking down in tears.

Neset Guler and his family also escaped just in time from their home in the Turkish city of Kahramanmaraş, just 50 kilometres north of the first quake's epicentre.

"We barely escaped from inside the house. We have four children and we left the house with them at the last moment. I guess there are several people trapped inside. It was a huge disaster," survivor Neset Guler said as he and others tried to keep warm, wrapped in blankets around a fire Monday night. 

But while they're lucky to have survived the disaster, they were left in a perilous situation like so many other survivors.

"Our situation is very bad here, we are waiting without water or food," Guler said. "We are in a miserable state." 

People sit around a small fire at night.
People warm up around a fire following an earthquake in Antakya, Hatay Province, Turkey. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

Loved ones left behind

Those who did survive the devastation have also been left with feelings of despair and abandonment, as they are helpless to recover the bodies of their loved ones from beneath the rubble. 

That's the sentiment shared by some members of the Alinak family in the Turkish city of Malatya.

The epicentre of the 7.5-magnitude aftershock, that struck nine hours after the first, larger earthquake, was about 160 kilometres to the west. 

A man stands on a pile of snow-covered debris, holding a jacket, while a woman is sitting in front of him and holding a child.
People sit by a collapsed building in Malatya, Turkey on Tuesday. (Emrah Gurel/The Associated Press)

The Alinak family are now homeless and waiting in the heavy snow and freezing temperatures for someone to come to help recover their missing relatives.

"My in-laws' grandchildren are there. We have been here for two days. We are devastated. You see how we are doing, said Sabiha Alinak. 

They say they're not allowed to dig through debris to pull out the bodies of the two children believed to be buried inside. They want to lay them to rest.

"There are possibly hundreds more buildings like this," said Ahmet Alinak, gesturing behind himself to a snow-covered remains of a collapsed home. "Thousands are currently under the rubble. They [Turkish authorities] won't let us save them by our means, but they don't send anyone to help either." 

People sit on benches outdoors, surrounding a small fire, with a damaged concrete structure in the background.
People sit near the damaged historical New Mosque following an earthquake in Malatya, Turkey. (Stringer/Reuters)

A bulldozer is parked in front of what once was their home but there is no one to drive it since heavy snowfall hampered search efforts and aid delivery to more inaccessible regions.

"For God's sake let us do it," Sabiha said. 

"This is not what we expected from the state. No matter how big the earthquake was, mobilization of all people was necessary," added Ahmet. He feels the family is "doomed."

Listen | Earthquake survivors desperately need shelter:

Rescuers in Turkey race to save remaining earthquake survivors

4 months ago
Duration 2:40
Rescue workers in Turkey raced to save those still trapped under the rubble of Monday’s massive earthquakes. The next challenge is providing shelter for the thousands of people who’ve lost their homes.

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press