Earthquake death toll passes 42,000 as rescue operations become recovery operations

GAZIANTEP, Turkey / HOLEB, Syria — Ten days after the massive earthquake that struck southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria, the true toll of the devastation is coming into view. The official death toll in Turkey and Syria has passed 42,000. Hundreds of thousands are now homeless in the dead of winter, trying to stay warm in their cars and by makeshift fires without adequate shelter or food.

The UN has updated its casualties estimates and now predicts the death toll will eventually exceed 50,000 once the recovery operations are completed. However, given that the remains of numerous individuals are still buried under vast piles of debris, the actual toll on human lives from the catastrophe might never be fully ascertained.

Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) for Europe Hans-Henri P. Kluge stated that the needs for humanitarian aid are increasing every hour and that about 26 million people in Turkey and Syria require assistance. He also added that there are growing concerns about the emergence of health problems related to cold weather and poor hygiene and sanitation putting people at greater risk of infectious diseases.

On Tuesday, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) stated that the number of children affected by the earthquake had reached 5 million in Turkey and 2.5 million in Syria. UNICEF spokesperson James Elder expressed the UN’s fears that thousands of children may have died and have yet to be accounted for.

From Rescue to Recovery

Despite rescue teams saying they could still hear voices from the rubble on Tuesday and people still being found alive, including a 77-year-old woman in Adıyaman on Wednesday, efforts are increasingly being shifted from rescue to recovery as fewer and fewer survivors are found.

Among the recovered dead is Syriac Maronite Lebanese citizen Elias Haddad.

The remains of Elias Haddad were recovered in the debris of a hotel that was destroyed in Antakya. Lebanese Civil Defense volunteers from the Cedars-11 team went to Turkey on their own accord and made the announcement.

Along with Haddad’s body, the team also found the body of a young girl.

Bassel Habkouk, a friend of Haddad who was staying with him, was rescued on 8 February. According to Habkouk, the two were attempting to escape through the stairwell when the building collapsed.

Syriac Maronite Lebanese citizen Elias Haddad who died in the collapse of a hotel in Antakya during the 6 February 2023 earthquake. earthquake

Despite the Turkish government’s promise to reconstruct all the damaged and destroyed structures throughout the nation within a year, few individuals are confident that it can be accomplished. Besides, they have more urgent worries, such as burying the dead.

Due to the urgency of the situation, many bodies were being interred in mass graves that were being dug hastily along the edges of highways or anywhere else where the ground could be cleared. The makeshift burial sites extend as far as the eye can see, and work crews are busy digging more.

A wooden plank marks a grave in a cemetery in Pazarcik, Turkey. (Image: Jason Beaubien / NPR)

Reshaped Geography

Teams conducting infrastructure damage assessments in the wake of the earthquake have described the extensiveness and severity of the damage in some areas.

Turkey’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure stated that trees and railways at some locations have moved up to 4 meters. Some fissures in the earth reached a depth of over 2.5 meters.

In Altınözü District in Hatay Province, the earthquake caused the formation of a massive gorge measuring nearly 300 meters long, 50 meters wide, and over 40 meters deep.

Fissure in an olive grove in Altınözü, Hatay, Turkey, caused by the devastating earthquake on 6 February. (Image: Oguz Yeter / Getty Images)

Local resident Irfan Aksu told Demioren News Agency that the earthquake sounded like a battlefield.

Aksu urged experts to examine the area for any potential future damage. He expressed concern about the safety of the approximately 7,000 people who live in the area. Aksu emphasized that they were frightened and stated that if the earthquake had occurred a little closer, it could have caused severe damage to their town.