Chaos reigns in Antakya as earthquake relief efforts struggle to cope

Chaos reigns in Antakya as earthquake relief efforts struggle to cope
Scenes of chaos prevailed in Antakya on Tuesday as the emergency response to Turkey’s deadly earthquake began.
4 min read
Turkey - Istanbul
07 February, 2023
Raziye Toparli mourns the loss of her daughter and husband, killed after a building collapsed in Iskanderun, southern Turkey following a deadly earthquake on Monday morning. [William Christou/TNA]

For a city with no electricity or running water, Antakya is awfully loud. The sound of sirens from ambulances transporting patients to the emergency rooms, together with the wailing of families who fear that their loved ones will not escape the city's broken buildings alive, was constant.

The city of about 200,000 in southern Turkey was one of the worst hit by Monday's devastating earthquake.

Collapsed buildings are everywhere, and those that survived the tremors lean dangerously, shards of glass falling in the wind.

Volunteers have poured into the southern city in order to help alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe.

They dig through shattered concrete and rebar by hand, attempting to break through solid concrete with pickaxes and electric drills.

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One volunteer complained that he had not been given any tasks for the day, nor the proper equipment to conduct rescues.

"I volunteered because I am a dentist and I thought I could give some medical help. But I've been standing around all day with nothing to do," Harun, an aid volunteer, told The New Arab.

Another volunteer rescue worker, Ege, in the city of Iskanderoun in southern Turkey said that he had been given little more than gloves and a helmet before being put to work helping dig people out of the rubble.

He said that professional workers were few and far between. They would go from wreck to wreck, using equipment to see if there was a possibility of survivors in the debris.

If they did not sense vital signs, they would move on and leave the volunteers to recover the bodies.

When emergency workers heard voices coming from beneath a collapsed floor some 36 hours after the earthquake, they quickly set to work to free them.

However, without the proper tools, the work was painstakingly slow.

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The men resorted to prying free segments of the floor by tying a rope around it and pulling in unison, while another tried to chip away the concrete with an angle grinder. Hours passed without the emergency responders being able to physically locate the source of the voices.

About a hundred soldiers, volunteers and Turkish emergency responders all relied on one small generator, and a 20-litre water bottle repurposed to hold its fuel sitting next to it.

Authorities, overwhelmed with the scale of the disaster, simply cannot cope.

At least ten cities across southern Turkey were deeply impacted by the disaster, with more than 3,400 buildings completely destroyed according to the International Federation of the Red Cross.

In a grim sign of the scale of the disaster, TNA's correspondent saw at least 4 corpses dotting the streets of Anatakya, wrapped in a flowery pink and white blanket and left lying on the asphalt in the open air.

The Turkish government has put the death toll of the earthquake at around 5,200, expecting it to rise as collapsed buildings are excavated.

Workers on the ground have estimated the toll to be far greater based on what they are seeing. A police officer in Antakya suggested the toll might be as high as 50,000 – a number that far outstrips the official count and that TNA could not independently verify.

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The outpouring of support to the affected provinces has helped stem the humanitarian disaster, but supplies and manpower appeared to be thinly stretched.

A Lebanese resident of Gaziantep, Farah Abu al-Sol, said to TNA that she had been trapped in an ad-hoc shelter without food, water or a word from the authorities for more than 24 hours.

"We need clean water. We have no running water, so far the government has brought in bottled water from other provinces," Harkan Çan Baş a general surgeon who came to assist with rescue efforts in Anatakya, told TNA.

Despite the dazzling number of obstacles in front of Turkey, victories were still to be had.

A flurry of motion accompanied the announcement that a survivor had been found in Anatakya on Tuesday afternoon. Family members rushed to see Mehmet Çan Eid Baş a 32-year-old man who had been stuck under the rubble for 36 hours.

Responders had been working for about ten hours to free Mehmet after hearing his voice in the morning.

"He's a very kind man, always helping the elderly members of the family," Harkan, Mehmet's cousin, told TNA.

Emergency responders finally freed Mehmet and rushed him to an ambulance.

His lips, blue from the cold, and his skin a pallid white, he was taken to a nearby hospital with his cousin, ending his nightmarish two days pinned under the building he used to call home.