Thousands dead in Turkey and Syria after 7.8 magnitude earthquake

Swaths of southern Turkey and northern Syria are in ruins after a powerful earthquake ripped through the region. At least 3,400 are dead, more than 13,000 more injured and tens of thousands are homeless. The pre-dawn quake hit with a 7.8 magnitude and shook buildings as far away as Israel. Kieren Barnes of Mercy Corps joined Geoff Bennett to discuss the disaster.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Good evening.

    Stretches of Southern Turkey and Northern Syria are in ruins tonight after a powerful earthquake ripped through the region. The numbers are staggering, more than 3,700 dead, some 13,000 injured and tens of thousands of homeless. The predawn quake hit in Southern Turkey with a 7.8 magnitude and shook buildings as far away as Israel. A second quake followed with hundreds of aftershocks.

    A moment of pure terror, people fleeing for their lives in Malatya, Turkey, whole buildings reduced to dust as the powerful earthquake ravaged Turkey and Syria. Rescuers now battling freezing temperatures as they sift through debris, searching for survivors and pulling out the dead. Many left waiting in shock for news of family and friends.

  • Bircan Rizvan, Turkey Resident (through translator):

    There are people still trapped under rubble. I have a friend living in this apartment. His children were rescued from the top floor, but his daughter broke an arm. We will see what happened to those living on the ground floors.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Turkey's President Erdogan called it the worst disaster since the 1930s.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkish President (through translator):

    We do not know how far the number of dead and injured will rise, as debris removal works continue in many buildings in the quake zone. Our hope is that we will recover from this disaster with the least loss of life.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    One woman trapped in her destroyed apartment building rescued by crane. Cheaply and improperly built apartments have been a problem across the country, many of them now teetering on the edge of collapse.

    Across the border in Syria, workers scramble to pull victims out from under destroyed buildings, a harrowing scene of a baby born in the rubble who was rushed to safety. The mother did not survive. Elsewhere, a rescuer frantically carried a little girl away from ruins.

    One survivor of the quakes described his family's escaped from an almost certain death.

  • Osama Abdel Hamid, Earthquake Survivor (through translator):

    I have four children and my wife. We were at home sleeping peacefully. We felt the quake. It was very strong, so I pulled out with my wife and kids and ran directly towards the entrance of the house.

    As we reached the entrance of the building, it collapsed totally on us. A wooden door fell on us, which saved us. The building consists of four stories. None of the people in the other three stories have survived.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    At this hospital in Afrin, more evidence of the enormity of the loss. Bodies wrapped in blankets filled the floor.

    The hardest-hit regions in Syria are home to millions of displaced refugees from the country's civil war, living in poverty with little access to health care and few resources.

    The United Nations secretary-general tonight calling for support for both countries.

  • António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General:

    Let's work together in solidarity to assist all those hit by this disaster, many of whom were already in dire needs of humanitarian aid.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    The U.S. says it's working with Turkish authorities to provide assistance and rescue crews. More offers of aid have been pouring in as the world watches the death toll climb.

    We're joined now from Istanbul by Kieren Barnes, the Syria country director for the humanitarian group Mercy Corps.

    Thanks for being with us.

    And this is a very complex search-and-rescue operation. It's been hampered by severe cold and snow. There are also powerful aftershocks. What's the situation the ground right now?

  • Kieren Barnes, Syria Country Director, Mercy Corps:

    Well, thanks, Geoff.

    Our team is actually based in Northwest Syria. And it's probably one of the most vulnerable parts of this region. So there's very limited infrastructure in that part of Syria. So one of the biggest challenges today has simply been the electricity functioning, communication working, so that we can actually contact our teams that are on the ground and actually assessing what those needs are and how people have been impacted.

    We're primarily looking at shelter as the immediate need, because, within Northwest Syria, a lot of the infrastructure is damaged, houses have collapsed, apartment blocks have collapsed. So people are without homes at the moment. So, shelter is the most immediate one. We are in probably the worst part of winter. The next few days are going to be extremely cold.

    So we have that additional pressure on top. So, having a safe place to sleep, mattresses to sleep on, blankets, these kind of very basic, but immediate needs are for the next few days. I think, following that, there's going to be some other critical areas that we do need to look at.

    And that will include things like the access to water. People who have been moving throughout the last 12 years of this conflict living in temporary shelters such as tents, they need water on a regular basis simply to survive.

    Those water sources, we know, have been damaged through this earthquake. So, we need to find ways to find that water to bring it to those people, to maintain what is actually our regular work in Syria. So, I think those are going to be some key challenges and what we're going to be working on over the next few days and throughout the weeks ahead.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    For Syrians who have endured a brutal civil war, this sense of suffering is really all too familiar.

    According to the International Rescue Committee, many Syrians have been displaced as many as 20 times. How is that exacerbated by the effects of this earthquake?

  • Kieren Barnes:

    Yes, and this — to be honest, it includes some of our staff as well who work with us. They are also displaced families who throughout this conflict have been affected and have had to move multiple times.

    The Syrian population is extremely resilient. And the fact that they have continued to survive throughout the last 12 years of this conflict does speak a lot about those communities. However, here we are again with another crisis. The last 12 months have been tough. We have had the Ukraine conflict, which has also impacted on the availability of food.

    We have had cholera just before the winter, which again has had — has been devastating for communities. And now we have what's happened today, which is really devastating and concerning about what happens next. We do know the Syrian people will keep moving forward. That is for sure. But they are going to need a significant amount of support.

    And that's also the concern that we have is, Syria has been dropping off the kind of priority list for the past few years because of other situations around the world. But, with what's happened today, it's something that cannot be forgotten. And we need to step up. We need the international community to support the people of Syria tonight and tomorrow night and then through the rest of the weeks and months ahead.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And Turkey, as you know, is facing a collapsing currency, runaway inflation.

    How is that economic hardship affecting the rescue effort? And how will it affect the recovery effort long term?

  • Kieren Barnes:

    Yes, the economic collapse, to be honest, in the whole region has been extremely difficult for people, even just finding jobs to continue their daily lives, prior to this current crisis.

    We have seen the Syrian pound also have huge issues around inflation. Things are devaluing all the time. It makes it very difficult for people to have businesses, to find jobs, and to support themselves. The global economy is impacting on this in a very significant way.

    So, what happens around the world have impacts on those people inside Syria additionally. And this will make it hard. One of the probably bigger concerns in the immediate future will be the access to goods. We have, as Mercy Corps, preposition stocks, such as mattresses, blankets, jerricans, these kinds of things that we can distribute immediately.

    But those resources will run out, and we will need suppliers, we will need contractors to have those stocks. And I think it's being able to access that, again, will be — will — there will be pressure on that over the coming weeks, because everybody will be looking for those items, and we will all be trying to source it.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Kieren Barnes with the humanitarian group Mercy Corps speaking with us from Istanbul tonight.

    Kieren, thank you.

  • Kieren Barnes:


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