GAZIANTEP, Turkey (AP) — Thousands who lost their homes in a catastrophic earthquake huddled around campfires and clamored for food and water in the bitter cold, three days after the temblor and series of aftershocks hit Turkey and Syria, killing more than 17,000.
Rescuers continued their race to pull more people alive from the rubble, with the window closing to find trapped survivors. While stories of miraculous rescues briefly buoyed spirits, the grim reality of the hardship facing tens of thousands who survived the disaster cast a pall.
In the Turkish city of Antakya, dozens of people scrambled for aid in front of a truck distributing children’s coats and other supplies.
Ahmet Tokgoz, a survivor, called for the government to evacuate people from the devastated region. While many of the tens of thousands who have lost their homes have found shelter in tents, stadiums and other temporary accommodation, others have spent the nights outdoors since Monday’s 7.8 magnitude quake.
“Especially in this cold, it is not possible to live here,” he said. “People are warming up around campfires, but campfires can only warm you up so much. … If people haven’t died from being stuck under the rubble, they’ll die from the cold.”
Meanwhile, the first U.N. aid trucks to enter rebel-held northwest Syria from Turkey since the quake arrived Thursday morning. Smaller aid organizations have sent in shipments, but the U.N. is only authorized to deliver aid through one border crossing and road damage has prevented that thus far.
Winter weather and damage to roads and airports from the quake have hampered the response throughout a region already contending with the repercussions of more than a decade of civil war in Syria. That conflict displaced millions of people within Syria and left many reliant on humanitarian aid, while also sending millions more over the border into Turkey to seek refuge.
Some in Turkey have complained the response was too slow. Any perception that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has mismanaged the crisis could hurt him at a time when he faces a tough battle for reelection in May. Erdogan — who was scheduled to continue his tour of devastated areas on Thursday — has sought to play down the criticism.
Meanwhile, emergency crews on both sides of the border worked through the night to find survivors. Experts said the survival window for those trapped under the rubble or otherwise unable to obtain basic necessities was closing rapidly. At the same time, they said it was too soon to abandon hope.
In the Turkish town of Elbistan, rescuers formed human chains as they dug through collapsed buildings, urging quiet in the hopes of hearing stifled pleas for help. But more and more often, they pulled out dead bodies from under the rubble.
The family of Havva Havam still hoped to see three of its members alive again, sitting by the fire opposite their former home, now the pile of debris.
In Antakya to the south, rescuers pulled out a young girl, Hazal Guner, from the ruins of a building and also rescued her father, Soner Guner, news agency IHA reported.
As they prepared to load the man into an ambulance, rescue crews told him that his daughter was alive. “I love you all,” he faintly whispered.
Elsewhere in the city, Serap Arslan said machinery only started to move some of the heavy concrete covering trapped people on Wednesday.
“We tried to clear the debris on our own, but unfortunately our efforts have been insufficient,” the 45-year-old said.
Turkey’s disaster management agency said more than 110,000 rescue personnel were now taking part in the effort and more than 5,500 vehicles, including tractors, cranes, bulldozers and excavators had been shipped.
In the Syrian government-held city of Aleppo, rescue workers pulled seven people out alive and 44 bodies on Thursday from a collapsed building in the city center, state TV reported.
“We are racing against time. Time is running out,” said the Syrian paramedic group in the rebel-held northwest known as White Helmets. “Every second could mean saving a life.”
As in Turkey, heavy machinery was urgently needed there to speed up rescue operations, the group said.
Aid efforts in Syria 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.
On Thursday, the first U.N. aid trucks crossed into northwest Syria from Turkey. U.N. officials said they are also trying to scale up deliveries to the area from the capital, Damascus.
The shipment was scheduled before the earthquake happened but was delayed by the road damage. U.N. officials said more trucks were set to follow with assistance specifically for the current crisis.
Still, the scale of loss and suffering to tend to is massive. Erdogan announced Thursday that the death toll had risen to more than 14,000 in his country, with more than 63,000 injured. On the Syrian side, which includes in government-held and rebel-held areas, of the border, more than 3,100 have been reported dead and more than 5,000 injured.
On Wednesday, Erdogan sought to deflect criticism of the response — and vowed it was improving.
“It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster,” Erdogan said as he visited the hard-hit province of Hatay. “We will not leave any of our citizens uncared for.” He also hit back at critics, saying “dishonorable people” were spreading “lies and slander” about the government’s actions.
He said the government would distribute 10,000 Turkish lira ($532) to affected families.
The earthquake’s toll is the highest worldwide since a 2011 earthquake off Japan triggered a tsunami, killing nearly 20,000 people.
Alsayed reported from Bab al-Hawa, Syria. Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press journalists David Rising in Bangkok and Robert Badendieck in Istanbul contributed.