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Hopes fade as death toll after earthquake in Turkey and Syria passes 20,000

People stand by collapsed buildings in Golbasi, in Adiyaman province, southern Turkey (Emrah Gurel/AP)
Mehmet Guzel, Ghaith Alsayed, Suzan Fraser and Zeynep Bilginsoy, Associated Press

More survivors have been pulled from under the rubble of collapsed buildings after a huge earthquake and aftershocks hit Turkey and Syria – but hopes of finding more people alive more than three days later are fading.

The disaster’s death toll now exceeds 20,000.

Emergency crews working through the night in the city of Antakya were able to save a young girl, Hazal Guner, from the ruins of a building and also rescued her father, Soner Guner, two hours later, news agency IHA reported.

As they prepared the man to be put in an ambulance, rescue crews told him his daughter was alive and they were taking him to the same field hospital for treatment.

“I love you all,” he faintly whispered to the rescue team.

While stories of miraculous rescues briefly buoyed spirits, the grim reality of the hardship facing tens of thousands who survived the disaster cast a shadow.

The number of deaths has surpassed the toll in a 2011 earthquake off Japan that triggered a tsunami, killing more than 18,400 people.

In Diyarbakir, east of Antakya, rescuers freed an injured woman from a collapsed building in the early morning hours but found the three people next to her in the rubble dead, the DHA news agency reported.

In addition to the thousands killed in Turkey, the country’s disaster management agency said more than 60,000 have been injured. On the Syrian side of the border, at least 3,162 have been reported dead and more than 5,000 hurt.

Tens of thousands are thought to have lost their homes. In Antakya, former residents of a collapsed building huddled around an outdoor fire overnight into Thursday, wrapping blankets tightly around themselves to try and stay warm.

Satellite images shows buildings in Antakya, Turkey, before and after a powerful earthquake struck the region on Monday
Satellite images shows buildings in Antakya, Turkey, before and after a powerful earthquake struck the region on Monday (Maxar Technologies/AP)

Serap Arslan said many people remain under the rubble of the nearby building, including her mother and brother. She said machinery only started to move some of the heavy concrete on Wednesday.

“We tried to clear the debris on our own, but unfortunately our efforts have been insufficient,” the 45-year-old said.

Selen Ekimen wiped tears from her face with gloved hands as she said both her parents and brother are still buried.

“There’s been no sound from them for days,” she said. “Nothing.”

Experts say the survival window for those trapped under the rubble or otherwise unable to obtain basic necessities is closing rapidly. At the same time, they say it is too soon to abandon hope.

“The first 72 hours are considered to be critical,” said Steven Godby, a natural hazards expert at Nottingham Trent University in England. “The survival ratio on average within 24 hours is 74%, after 72 hours it is 22% and by the fifth day it is 6%.”

According to the disaster management agency, more than 110,000 rescue personnel are now taking part in the effort and more than 5,500 vehicles, including tractors, cranes, bulldozers and excavators have been shipped.

The task is monumental, however, with thousands of buildings toppled by the earthquake.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces a tough battle for re-election in May, acknowledged problems with the emergency response to Monday’s 7.8-magnitude quake, but said the winter weather has been a factor. The earthquake also destroyed the runway at Hatay’s airport, further disrupting the response.

“It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster,” Mr Erdogan said as he visited the hard-hit province of Hatay on Wednesday. “We will not leave any of our citizens uncared for.” He also hit back at critics, saying “dishonourable people” are spreading “lies and slander” about the government’s actions.

The disaster comes at a sensitive time for Mr Erdogan, who faces an economic downturn and high inflation. Perceptions that his government mismanaged the crisis could hurt his standing. He said the government will distribute 10,000 Turkish lira (£437.75) to affected families.

People stand by collapsed buildings in Golbasi, in Adiyaman province, southern Turkey
People stand by collapsed buildings in Golbasi, in Adiyaman province, southern Turkey (Emrah Gurel/AP)

Teams from more than two dozen countries have joined the local emergency personnel in the effort. But the scale of destruction from the quake and its powerful aftershocks is so immense and spread over such a wide area that many people are still awaiting help.

The region was already beset by more than a decade of civil war in Syria. Millions have been displaced within Syria itself and millions more have sought refuge in Turkey.

In Syria, aid efforts have been hampered by the ongoing war and the isolation of the rebel-held region along the border, which is surrounded by Russia-backed government forces. Syria itself is an international pariah under western sanctions linked to the war.

In north-west Syria, the first UN aid trucks to enter the rebel-controlled area from Turkey since the quake arrived on Thursday, underscoring the difficulty of getting help to people in the country.

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