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Magnitude 7.8 earthquake kills more than 2,800 people in Turkey and Syria

The magnitude 7.8 earthquake near Gaziantep, a major city in southern Turkey, was followed by a second one measuring magnitude 7.5 about 60 miles away.

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A powerful magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked wide swaths of Turkey and neighboring Syria on Monday, killing more than 2,800 people and injuring thousands more as it toppled thousands of buildings and trapped residents under mounds of rubble.

Authorities feared the death toll would rise further 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 awake by the predawn quake rushed outside in the rain and snow to escape falling debris, while those who were trapped cried for help.

UPDATE: Death toll now more than 3,400 in Turkey, Syria quake

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Throughout the day, major aftershocks rattled the region, including a jolt nearly as strong as the initial quake. After night fell, workers were still sawing away concrete slabs and pulling out bodies as desperate families waited for news on trapped loved ones.

“My grandson is 1 1/2 years old. Please help them, please. We can’t hear them or get any news from them since morning. Please, they were on the 12th floor,” a weeping Imran Bahur pleaded beside her destroyed apartment building in the Turkish city of Adana. Her daughter and family were still not found.

Tens of thousands left homeless in Turkey and Syria faced a night in the cold. In Gaziantep, a Turkish provincial capital about 20 miles from the epicenter, people took refuge in shopping malls, stadiums and community centers. Mosques around the region were opened to provide shelter.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared seven days of national mourning.

The quake, which was centered in Turkey’s southeastern province of Kahramanmaras, sent residents of Damascus, the Syrian capital, and Beirut hundreds of miles away rushing into the street and was felt as far away as Cairo.

The quake piled more misery on a region that has seen tremendous suffering over the last decade. On the Syrian side, the swath affected by the quake 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 civil war.

Damaged vehicles parked in front of a collapsed building
Damaged vehicles sit parked outside a building that collapsed in a powerful earthquake that struck southern Turkey on Monday.
(Depo Photos)

In the rebel-held enclave, hundreds of families remained trapped in rubble, the opposition emergency organization White Helmets said in a statement. The area is packed with some 4 million Syrians displaced from other parts of the country by the war. Many of them live in buildings that are already wrecked from past bombardments.

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

More than 6,400 people were rescued across 10 provinces, according to Orhan Tatar, an official with Turkey’s disaster management authority.

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

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The U.S. Geological Survey measured Monday’s quake at magnitude 7.8, with a depth of 11 miles. Hours later, a magnitude 7.5 temblor struck more than 60 miles away.

The second jolt in the afternoon caused a multistory apartment building to topple onto the street in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa, smashing into rubble and raising a cloud of dust as bystanders screamed, according to video of the scene.

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Thousands of buildings were reported to have collapsed in a wide area extending from the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Hama to Turkey’s Diyarbakir, more than 200 miles to the northeast.

In Turkey alone, more than 5,600 buildings were destroyed, authorities said. Hospitals were damaged, and one collapsed in the Turkish city of Iskenderun.

Bitterly cold temperatures could reduce the time frame that rescuers have to save trapped survivors, said Steven Godby, an expert in natural hazards at Nottingham Trent University. He added that the difficulty of working in areas beset by civil war would only complicate rescue efforts.

Offers of help — from search-and-rescue teams to medical supplies and money — poured in from dozens of countries, as well as the European Union and NATO. The vast majority were for Turkey, with Russian and even an Israeli promise of help to the Syrian government, but it was not clear if any would go to the devastated rebel-held pocket in the northwest.

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The Syrian opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense described the situation in the enclave as “disastrous.”

The opposition-held area, centered on the province of Idlib, has been under siege for years, with frequent Russian and government airstrikes. The territory depends on a flow of aid from nearby Turkey for everything from food to medical supplies.

At a hospital in Idlib, Osama Abdel Hamid said most of his neighbors died. He said their shared four-story building collapsed just as he, his wife and three children ran toward the exit. A wooden door fell on them and acted as a shield.

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

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.

Televisions stations in Turkey showed screens split into four or five parts, with live coverage from rescue efforts in the worst-hit provinces. In the city of Kahramanmaras, rescuers pulled two children alive from the rubble; one could be seen lying on a stretcher on the snowy ground. Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk said a woman was pulled out alive in Gaziantep after a rescue dog detected her.

Rescuers search through wreckage of collapsed buildings
Rescuers search through the wreckage of collapsed buildings in Hama, Syria, after a powerful earthquake Monday.
(Omar Sanadik / Associated Press)
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In Adana, 20 or so people, some in emergency rescue jackets, used power saws atop the cement mountain of a collapsed building to saw out space for any survivors to climb out or be rescued.

“I don’t have the strength anymore,” one survivor could be heard calling out from beneath the rubble of another building in Adana earlier in the day, as rescue workers tried to reach him, said a resident, journalism student Muhammet Fatih Yavuz.

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.

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At least 1,762 people were killed in 10 Turkish provinces, with more than 12,000 injured, according to Turkish authorities. The death toll in government-held areas of Syria climbed to 593, 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.

Huseyin Yayman, a legislator from Turkey’s Hatay province, said several of his family members were stuck under the rubble of their collapsed homes.

“There are so many other people who are also trapped,” he told HaberTurk television by telephone. “There are so many buildings that have been damaged. People are on the streets. It’s raining, it’s winter.”

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