Over 2,300 people have been killed in the “most powerful earthquake” to strike Turkey and Syria in nearly a century on Monday.
Tremors from the 7.8 magnitude earthquake were felt as far away as Greenland.
The early morning quake, followed by dozens of aftershocks, wiped out entire sections of major Turkish cities in a region filled with millions who have fled the civil war in neighbouring Syria and other conflicts.
Rescuers have been using heavy equipment and their bare hands to peel back rubble in search of survivors, who they could in some cases hear begging for help under the debris.
“Since I live in an earthquake zone, I am used to being shaken,” Melisa Salman, a reporter in the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras told AFP.
“But that was the first time we have ever experienced anything like that. We thought it was the apocalypse,” she added.
The head of Syria’s National Earthquake Centre, Raed Ahmed, called it “the biggest earthquake recorded in the history of the centre”.
At least 810 people died in rebel and government-controlled parts of Syria, state media and medical sources said, while Turkish officials reported more than 1,500 fatalities.
The rescue work is being hampered by a winter blizzard that covered major roads in ice and snow. Officials said the quake made three major airports in the area inoperable, further complicating deliveries of vital aid.
Turkey’s last 7.8-magnitude tremor was in 1939, when 33,000 died in the eastern Erzincan province.
Epicentre near historic city of Gaziantep
Monday’s first quake struck at 4:17am (0117 GMT) at a depth of about 18 kilometres (11 miles) near the Turkish city of Gaziantep, which is home to around two million people, the US Geological Survey said.
Denmark’s geological institute said tremors from the main quake reached the east coast of Greenland about eight minutes after the tremor struck Turkey.
Osama Abdel Hamid, a quake survivor in Syria, told AFP his family was sleeping when the shaking began.
“I woke up my wife and my children and we ran towards the door,” he said. “We opened it and suddenly the building collapsed.”
A spokesman for Syria’s civil defence said teams were scrambling to rescue trapped people.
“Many buildings in different cities and villages in northwestern Syria collapsed… Even now, many families are under the rubble,” said Ismail Alabdallah.
2000-year-old castle in Turkey destroyed
Images on Turkish television showed rescuers digging through rubble across city centres and residential neighbourhoods of almost all the big cities running along the border with Syria.
Some of the heaviest devastations occurred near the quake’s epicentre between Kahramanmaras and Gaziantep, where entire city blocks lay in ruins under the gathering snow.
A famous mosque dating back to the 13th century partially collapsed in the province of Maltaya, where a 14-story building with 28 apartments that housed 92 people also collapsed.
In other cities, social media posts showed a 2,200-year-old hilltop castle built by Roman armies in Gaziantep lying in ruins, its walls partially turned to rubble.
In Syria’s war-torn Aleppo, the ancient citadel was damaged.
The Syrian health ministry reported damage across the provinces of Aleppo, Latakia, Hama and Tartus, where Russia is leasing a naval facility.
Even before the tragedy, buildings in Aleppo — Syria’s pre-war commercial hub — often collapsed due to the dilapidated infrastructure, which has suffered from lack of war-time oversight.
Officials cut off natural gas and power supplies across the region as a precaution, also closing schools for two weeks.
Global powers rush to help
The United States, the European Union, India and Russia all immediately sent condolences and offers of help.
India has already sent a team of rescuers and medics to Turkey. It has also offered assistance to Syria.
Russia too has dispatched rescuers to both countries.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy offered to provide “the necessary assistance” to Turkey, whose combat drones are helping Kyiv fight the Russian invasion.
One of the world’s most active earthquake zones
Turkey is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones.
The Turkish region of Duzce suffered a 7.4-magnitude earthquake in 1999, when more than 17,000 people died — including about 1,000 in Istanbul.
Experts have long warned a large quake could devastate Istanbul, a megalopolis of 16 million people filled with rickety homes.
With inputs from AFP