A family of six was pulled out alive after 101 hours under the rubble in Iskenderun, southern Turkey. A family was rescued from the debris of a collapsed building on Friday morning, in the Hatay region, one of the worst-hit areas in Turkey. A 17-year-old was saved in Gaziantep, 94 hours after the first of Monday’s deadly earthquakes.
Friday morning brought glimmers of hope across a devastated landscape spanning the two sides of the Turkey-Syria border, as volunteers and workers pulled off seemingly miraculous rescues.
The rare successes came even as Turkey crossed a grim milestone: Its death toll from the earthquakes crossed 18,300, surpassing the number of people lost to the powerful 1999 temblor that had shaken and scarred the nation. In total, Monday’s two earthquakes of magnitudes 7.8 and 7.6, and hundreds of other powerful aftershocks, have killed at least 21,500 people and turned entire neighborhoods into debris in southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria.
The grim figure keeps rising as rescue workers continue their frantic search operations for a fifth consecutive day amid freezing temperatures and damaged infrastructure.
“Rescuers are on the way with heavy machinery still hoping to reach some of them – dead or alive,” said Al Jazeera correspondent Resul Serdar, reporting from a site of collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaras, the closest city to the epicenter of the first earthquake. “But they are getting a bit desperate here and tensions are really high,” he said.
It is a prolonged tragedy for those who survived — but they do not know whether their loved ones will. “My dears are burning under the rubble,” a Kahramanmaras resident told Al Jazeera, holding back tears.
Turkey’s disaster-management agency said more than 110,000 personnel were taking part in the rescue effort with the assistance of more than 5,500 vehicles, including tractors, cranes, bulldozers and excavators.
However, criticism against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government over the lack of a quick response to the tragedy is mounting.
“Why haven’t we learned anything? Why haven’t the authorities assessed the structures well enough? Why did authorities allow such weak structures?” Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu said, citing people’s doubts.
Turkey sits on major fault lines and cities have been repeatedly devastated by deadly earthquakesincluding a major one with a 7.4 magnitude in the western city of Izmit in 1999 when more than 17,500 people died.
On Wednesday, Erdogan defended his government’s preparations for and response to the earthquakes during a visit to the disaster zone, saying it was “impossible for anyone to prepare for the scale of the disaster”.
He went on to say that the state will rebuild all collapsed buildings in all 10 provinces affected by the earthquake within a year.
Experts argue though that while the strength, location and rapid succession of the earthquakes would pose a risk to any buildings, non-compulsory government reforms have left many buildings vulnerable.
“On paper, Turkey’s seismic design code is up to global standards – it is actually better than most,” Sinan Turkkan, civil engineer and president of Turkey’s Earthquake Retrofit Association, told Al Jazeera. “In practice, however, the situation is very different.”
Meanwhile, 14 aid trucks crossed into northwestern Syria from Turkey, the United Nations said. A first UN convoy had passed through the Bab al-Hawa crossing point on Thursday.
In the opposition-controlled areas of Syria, rescuers are working with their bare hands and some equipment to dig into rubble. The White Helmets, a voluntary organization in the rebel-held region officially known as Syria Civil Defence, criticized the UN saying its shipment was not tailored to the disaster as it contained regular aid.
“We still have hundreds of families trapped under the rubble, including 16 of my own cousins with their wives and children,” a volunteer in Idlib told Al Jazeera. “We can see the body of our beloved once under the ruins but we can’t do anything to collect them,” he added.
The situation in Syria’s government-controlled area is also problematic for those who survived.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Safir Salim of the Middle East Council of Churches says the situation is worsening for people made homeless in the Syrian city of Aleppo. He said after the earthquake, more people had to leave their homes after they were deemed unsafe.
“The situation now has started to be worse than yesterday. The engineers come to check the buildings and discover hundreds of buildings that cannot be saved,” he said.
“So they asked people to empty everything from the building quickly,” he said. “Now we are suffering for the future and what we will do now.”
You can find information on how to donate to earthquake relief efforts here.