The death toll from a massive earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria rose above 11,700 on Wednesday as rescuers raced to save survivors trapped under debris in the winter cold.
Officials and medics said 9,057 people had died in Turkey and 2,662 in Syria from Monday’s 7.8-magnitude tremor, bringing the total to 11,719.
For two days and nights since the quake, thousands of searchers have worked in freezing temperatures to find those still alive under flattened buildings on either side of the border. Turkish Red Crescent chief Kerem Kinik had warned that the first 72 hours were critical in search and rescue efforts but pointed to complications of “severe weather conditions”.
Emergency workers on Wednesday saved some children found under a collapsed building in the hard-hit Turkish province of Hatay, where whole stretches of towns have been levelled.
The World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned that time is running out for the thousands injured and those still feared trapped.
The White Helmets leading efforts to rescue people buried under rubble in rebel-held areas of Syria have appealed for international help in their “race against time”.
They have been toiling since the quake to pull survivors out from under the debris of dozens of flattened buildings in northwestern areas of war-torn Syria that remain outside the government’s control.
“International rescue teams must come into our region,” said Mohammed Shibli, a spokesperson for the group known formally as the Syria Civil Defence.
Nearly 50,000 people were also injured in Turkey and another 5,000 in Syria, officials and rescuers on both sides said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave an update on the casualty figures during a visit to Kahramanmaras, a southern Turkish city at the epicentre of the initial quake.
Television images showed him hugging a weeping, elderly woman and walking through a large crowd towards a Red Crescent humanitarian relief tent.
Facing a tough May 14 re-election, Mr. Erdogan pledged to rebuild the damaged regions within a year.
He also appeared to push back against criticism that the government's response to Turkey's worst disaster in decades has been slow.
"Initially there were issues at airports and on the roads, but today things are getting easier and tomorrow it will be easier still," he said in televised remarks.
"We have mobilised all our resources," he added. "The state is doing its job."
This earthquake is the deadliest since a 2011 quake in Japan triggered a tsunami, killing nearly 20,000 people.
Children pulled from the rubble
Nearly two days after the magnitude 7.8 quake struck southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, rescuers pulled a 3-year-old boy, Arif Kaan, from beneath the rubble of a collapsed apartment building in Kahramanmaras, a city not far from the epicentre.
With the boy's lower body trapped under slabs of concrete and twisted rebar, emergency crews lay a blanket over his torso to protect him from below-freezing temperatures as they carefully cut the debris away from him, mindful of the possibility of triggering another collapse.
The boy's father, Ertugrul Kisi, who himself had been rescued earlier, sobbed as his son was pulled free and loaded into an ambulance.
“For now, the name of hope in Kahramanmaras is Arif Kaan,” a Turkish television reporter proclaimed as the dramatic rescue was broadcast to the country.
A few hours later, rescuers pulled 10-year-old Betul Edis from the rubble of her home in the city of Adiyaman. Amid applause from onlookers, her grandfather kissed her and spoke softly to her as she was loaded on an ambulance.
But such stories were few more than two days after Monday's pre-dawn earthquake, which hit a huge area and brought down thousands of buildings, with frigid temperatures and ongoing aftershocks complicating rescue efforts.
Search teams from more than two dozen countries joined the Turkish emergency personnel, and aid pledges poured in.
But with devastation spread multiple several cities and towns — some isolated by Syria’s ongoing conflict — voices crying from within mounds of rubble fell silent, and despair grew from those still waiting for help.
In Syria, the shaking toppled thousands of buildings and heaped more misery on a region wracked by the country's 12-year civil war and refugee crisis.
On Monday afternoon in a northwestern Syrian town, residents found a crying newborn still connected by the umbilical cord to her deceased mother. The baby was the only member of her family to survive a building collapse in the small town of Jinderis, relatives told The Associated Press.
Turkey is home to millions of refugees from the war. The affected area in Syria is divided between government-controlled territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, where millions rely on humanitarian aid.
As many as 23 million people could be affected in the quake-hit region, according to Adelheid Marschang, a senior emergencies officer with the World Health Organization, who called it a “crisis on top of multiple crises.”
Many survivors in Turkey have had to sleep in cars, outside or in government shelters.
“We don’t have a tent, we don’t have a heating stove, we don’t have anything. Our children are in bad shape. We are all getting wet under the rain and our kids are out in the cold,” Aysan Kurt, 27, told the AP. “We did not die from hunger or the earthquake, but we will die freezing from the cold.”
State of emergency declared
Mr. Erdogan said 13 million of the country's 85 million people were affected, and he declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces. More than 8,000 people have been pulled from the debris in Turkey, and some 380,000 have taken refuge in government shelters or hotels, authorities said.
Turkey’s disaster management agency said the country’s death toll had risen to 7,108, bringing the overall total to 9,638, including fatalities reported in neighboring Syria, since Monday’s earthquake and multiple aftershocks. Another 40,910 people have been injured.
The death toll in government-held areas of Syria has climbed to 1,250, with 2,054 injured, according to the Health Ministry. At least 1,280 people have died in the rebel-held northwest, according to volunteer first responders known as the White Helmets, with more than 2,600 injured.
Syria’s ongoing war
In Syria, aid efforts have been hampered by the ongoing war and the isolation of the rebel-held region along the border, which is surrounded by Russia-backed government forces. Syria itself is an international pariah under Western sanctions linked to the war.
The United Nations said it was “exploring all avenues” to get supplies to the rebel-held northwest.
The region sits on top of major fault lines and is frequently shaken by earthquakes. Some 18,000 were killed in similarly powerful earthquakes that hit northwest Turkey in 1999.