A powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked wide parts of Turkey and Syria early Monday, toppling hundreds of buildings and killing more than 2,300 people, with hundreds more believed to be trapped under the rubble.
The epicenter of the pre-dawn earthquake was near Gaziantep, close to the Turkey-Syria border, and it was followed by a separate magnitude 7.5 earthquake about 100 kilometers north in the early afternoon.
On both sides of the border, residents were jolted awake as they rushed outside on a cold, rainy and snowy night. Many buildings were flattened into piles of pancaked floors, with aftershocks continuing to rattle the region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at least 2,800 buildings had collapsed, with Turkish officials saying nearly 1,500 people had been killed and thousands more injured. Syria reported more than 430 deaths in government-held areas, while rescue workers said at least 380 others died in rebel-controlled areas.
“Because the debris removal efforts are continuing in many buildings in the earthquake zone, we do not know how high the number of dead and injured will rise,” Erdogan said. “Hopefully, we will leave these disastrous days behind us in unity and solidarity as a country and a nation.”
Awale Ahmed Darfa, a Somali student in Gaziantep at the epicenter, told VOA Somali, “A large earthquake hit while we were asleep…. The situation turned critical very quickly. We heard screams, cries, and people running. The buildings were shaking as if they were shaken by Jinn [evil spirits]. Everyone ran to wherever they felt they would be safe.”
The student added, “We are now outside since we left our homes around 4 a.m. There is a problem being outside – it is rainy, cold, windy, and we are not wearing protective clothing. Outside, everyone is wearing what they were wearing in asleep. Some people do not have shoes. They told us we could not go back to the buildings because of the fear [of aftershocks]. That is the disaster here.”
The earthquake struck a region enveloped on both sides of the border by more than a decade of civil war in Syria. On the Syrian side, the swath affected is divided between government-held territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces. Turkey, meanwhile, is home to millions of refugees from the conflict.
The opposition-held regions in Syria are packed with about 4 million people displaced from other parts of the country by the fighting. Many of them live in buildings that are already damaged from past bombardments. On Monday, hundreds of families remained trapped in rubble, an opposition emergency organization, the White Helmets, said in a statement.
Strained health facilities and hospitals were quickly filled with injured, rescue workers said. Others had to be emptied, including a maternity hospital, according to the SAMS medical organization.
The region sits on top of major fault lines and is frequently shaken by earthquakes. About 18,000 were killed in a similarly powerful earthquakes that hit northwest Turkey in 1999.
Monday’s quake destroyed the historic Gaziantep Castle and many other historic buildings in the area.
In the Turkish city of Mersin, resident Nurhan Kiral told VOA’s Turkish service that the earthquake lasted about a minute.
“We woke up with the tremor and got out of the bed. Rubble fell from the chimney. Rubble fell from the empty space between the buildings. It was terrifying,” Kiral said.
The Syrian American Medical Society said its hospitals in Syria were “overwhelmed with patients filling the hallways.”
“Many hospitals are full, but some critical facilities, including Al Dana Hospital had to evacuate patients after sustaining severe damage from the earthquake,” the group said in a statement. “Likewise, the Idleb Maternity Hospital was forced to transfer all newborns to a nearby hospital.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said he authorized an immediate U.S. response.
“Our teams are deploying quickly to begin to support Turkish search and rescue efforts and address the needs of those injured and displaced by the earthquake. U.S.-supported humanitarian partners are also responding to the destruction in Syria,” Biden said in a statement Monday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, “We are determined to do all that we can to help those affected by these earthquakes in the days, weeks, and months ahead.”
The European Union said it mobilized rescue teams to the region, with crews from Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania.
“Our thoughts are with all those who have lost loved ones and the brave first responders working to save lives,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič said in a joint statement.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak all said their governments were ready to help those affected by the earthquake.
“Greece is mobilizing its resources and will assist immediately,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said search and rescue teams, as well as medical aid, would be going to Turkey in response to a request from the Turkish government.
Russia also said it had rescue teams preparing to go to Turkey to help earthquake victims in both Turkey and Syria.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy offered his government’s support as well.
“I am shocked to learn of deaths and injuries of hundreds of people as a result of the earthquake in Turkey,” Zelenskyy tweeted. “We send our condolences to the families of the victims and wish the injured a speedy recovery. At this time, we stand by the friendly Turkish people and are ready to provide the necessary assistance.”
Turkey is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones.
In 1999, 17,000 people were killed when a 7.4-magnitude earthquake — the worst to hit Turkey in decades — struck near Duzce, in the northwest of the country.
In October 2022, a magnitude-7.0 quake hit the Aegean Sea, killing 116 people and wounding more than 1,000. All but two of the victims were in Izmir, Turkey.
Some material for this article came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.