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Turkey earthquake survivors face despair, as rescues wane

Zehra Kurukafa walks past a destroyed house in the village of Polat, Turkey (Francisco Seco/AP)
Mehmet Guzel, Suzan Fraser and Sarah El Deeb, Associated Press

Thousands of people left homeless by a massive earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria a week ago packed into crowded tents or lined up in the streets for hot meals on Monday, while the desperate search for anyone still alive entered what were likely to be its last hours.

In nearby southern Hatay province, rescuers cheered and clapped as a 13-year-old boy, identified only by his first name, Kaan, was rescued from the rubble 182 hours after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck.

Thousands of local and overseas teams, including Turkish coal miners and experts aided by sniffer dogs and thermal cameras, are scouring pulverised apartment blocks for signs of life.

As well as stories of near-miraculous rescues in recent days – many broadcast live on Turkish television and beamed around the world – tens of thousands of bodies have been found during the same period.

Experts say that, given the freezing temperatures – and the total collapse of so many buildings – the window for such rescues is now almost closed.

The quake and hundreds of aftershocks, some nearly as powerful as the first, struck south-eastern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6, killing more than 35,000 people and reducing whole swathes of towns and cities inhabited by millions to fragments of concrete and twisted metal.

The Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation, a non-governmental business organisation, estimated the financial damage from the quake in Turkey alone at 84.1 billion US dollars (£69.3 billion)

The amount was considerably higher than any official estimates so far, and was calculated using a statistical comparison with the similarly devastating 1999 quake that hit north-west Turkey.

Elsewhere, Turkey offered to open a second border crossing to assist the international aid effort to Syria, and the United Nations said “a lot of delicate discussions” were taking place to open more border crossings from Turkey to Syria.

Some 62 miles (100km) from the epicentre, almost no houses were left standing in the village of Polat, where residents salvaged refrigerators, washing machines and other goods from wrecked homes.

Not enough tents have arrived for the homeless, said survivor Zehra Kurukafa, forcing families to share the tents that are available.

“We sleep in the mud, all together with two, three, even four families,” she said.

Turkey Syria Earthquake
Zehra Kurukafa walks past a destroyed house in the village of Polat, Turkey (Francisco Seco/AP)

In the city of Adiyaman, 25-year-old Musa Bozkurt waited for a vehicle to take him and others to the city of Afyon, in western Turkey.

“We’re going away, but we have no idea what will happen when we get there,” he said.

“We have no goal. Even if there was (a plan), what good will it be after this hour? I no longer have my father or my uncle. What do I have left?”

Fuat Ekinci, a 55-year-old farmer, was reluctant to leave his home for western Turkey despite the destruction, saying he did not have the means to live elsewhere and had fields that need to be tended.

“Those who have the means are leaving, but we’re poor,” he said. “The government says, go and live there a month or two. How do I leave my home? My fields are here, this is my home, how do I leave it behind?”

Volunteers from across Turkey have mobilised to help millions of survivors, including a group of chefs and restaurant owners who served traditional food such as beans and rice and lentil soup to survivors who lined up in the streets of downtown Adiyaman.

Damage included heritage sites in places like Antakya, on the southern coast of Turkey, an important ancient port and early centre of Christianity historically known as Antioch.

Greek Orthodox churches in the region have started charity drives to assist the relief effort and raise funds to eventually rebuild or repair churches.

Turkey Syria Earthquake
A rescue worker rests over the rubble of destroyed buildings in Adiyaman, southern Turkey (Khalil Hamra/AP)

As the scale of the disaster grows, sorrow and disbelief have turned to rage over the sense that there has been an ineffective response to the disaster.

That anger could be a political problem for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces a tough re-election battle in May.

Meanwhile, on Monday, rescue workers, including coal miners, found a woman alive in the wreckage of a five-storey building in Gaziantep province.

But Eduardo Reinoso Angulo, a professor at the Institute of Engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the likelihood of finding people alive is “very, very small now”.

David Alexander, a professor of emergency planning and management at University College London, agreed. But he added that the odds were not very good to begin with.

Many of the buildings were so poorly constructed that they collapsed into very small pieces, leaving very few spaces large enough for people to survive in, he said.

“If a frame building of some kind goes over, generally speaking we do find open spaces in a heap of rubble where we can tunnel in,” Prof Alexander said. “Looking at some of these photographs from Turkey and from Syria, there just aren’t the spaces.”

Turkey Syria Earthquake
Rescue workers pull a survivor from a collapsed building in Adiyaman, southern Turkey (IHA/AP)

Wintry conditions further reduce the window for survival.

Temperatures in the region have fallen to minus 6C (21F) overnight.

In such cold, the body shivers to keep warm – but that burns a lot of calories, meaning that people also deprived of food will die more quickly, said Dr Stephanie Lareau, a professor of emergency medicine at Virginia Tech in the US.

Many in Turkey blame faulty construction for the vast devastation, and authorities have begun targeting contractors allegedly linked with buildings that collapsed.

Turkey has introduced construction codes that meet earthquake-engineering standards, but experts say the codes are rarely enforced.

At least 131 people are under investigation for their alleged responsibility in the construction of buildings that failed to withstand the quakes, officials said.

On Monday, authorities in the quake-hit province of Malatya issued warrants for the detention of 31 more people, while a construction supervisor and a technician were arrested in Kahramanmaras, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

Turkey Syria Earthquake
A week after the two earthquakes hit, many people are still without shelter (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Turkey’s death toll from the quake has passed 31,000. Deaths in Syria, split between rebel-held areas and government-held areas, have risen beyond 3,500, although those reported by the government have not been updated for days.

Visiting the Turkish-Syrian border on Sunday, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths said the international community has failed to provide aid.

Syrians “rightly feel abandoned”, he said, adding: “My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.”

In the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Monday, the UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, told reporters that the “troubles” regarding the flow of aid to Syria’s rebel-held northwest are “now being corrected”.

The Kurdish-led administration in north-east Syria, meanwhile, said that 53 trucks carrying aid have crossed from Kurdish territory into earthquake-damaged areas controlled by rival Turkish-backed rebels in north-west Syria who had previously prevented convoys from crossing.

Turkish authorities consider the Syrian Democratic Forces to be a terrorist group, along with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Turkey-based Kurdish separatist group.

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