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Earthquake Rescue Efforts in Turkey, Syria Hampered by Snow

ISTANBUL—Snow, freezing temperatures and blocked roads hindered efforts to rescue survivors trapped under collapsed buildings across southern Turkey and northern Syria after two powerful earthquakes killed more than 5,000 people and destroyed thousands of homes.

Aid workers from around the world poured into Turkey on Tuesday to support local rescue efforts after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Monday morning was followed by a 7.5-magnitude quake in the afternoon.

Southern Turkey has since experienced 285 aftershocks including some strong enough to cause new buildings to crumble, said Orhan Tatar, an official from the country’s disaster-management agency. “Every minute new tremors are happening,” he said.

In some areas, civilians clawed through rubble with bare hands to reach loved ones screaming from beneath the debris. Survivors were pulled from the wreckage of collapsed buildings overnight, including a baby and her mother trapped for 29 hours in the southern Turkish province of Hatay, another woman stranded in Sanliurfa province for 22 hours and a child cut off for more than 18 hours in the northern Syrian city of Afrin.

Rescuers try to save people trapped beneath the rubble in Gaziantep.


Muhammad Ata/Zuma Press

Wounded earthquake survivors wait to be treated at a field hospital in Iskenderun, Turkey.


Burak Kara/Getty Images

But damaged roads, like a collapsed highway leading north from the epicenter of the first earthquake near the city of Gaziantep, complicated Turkish relief efforts. In Syria, more than a decade of civil conflict has created divisions in authority that have thwarted most services, with little help coming from President

Bashar al-Assad

‘s government in areas still under rebel control.

“It’s now a race against time. Every minute, every hour that passes, the chances of finding survivors alive diminishes,” said

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus,

director-general of the World Health Organization, which is dispatching three charter flights to Turkey and Syria with medical supplies from a logistics hub in Dubai. He said of particular concern were areas where no information was available due to a lack of power and communications.

Turkish President

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

said the cold weather had made rescue operations harder. Heavy snowstorms hit parts of both countries before the earthquake, and temperatures dipped below freezing overnight with more snow and freezing rain in some of the affected areas. A low of 21 degrees Fahrenheit is forecast for Tuesday in Gaziantep.

Turkish Agriculture and Forest Minister Vahit Kirisci said Tuesday that search-and-rescue teams were struggling to reach victims, with airport runways too damaged to land, particularly in the hard-hit Hatay province, in Turkey’s far south.

“We took off from Ankara to go to Hatay, but we were forced to land in Adana and reach Hatay by road,” he said at a news conference. “Search-and-rescue teams and technical help were negatively affected by all of this.”

A massive rescue effort was under way in Turkey and Syria after two successive powerful earthquakes struck on Monday, killing thousands. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government had received offers of aid and assistance from 45 countries. Photo: Can Erok/AFP/Getty Images

Search-and-rescue teams from Germany, Slovakia and Russia have arrived in the southern city of Adana, which is turning into a logistics hub for international rescue efforts, and were fanning out to the worst-hit areas, while victims from those areas were being sent to other cities and provinces, said Turkish Vice President

Fuat Oktay.

The authorities are also working to restore power in places where the earthquake had damaged infrastructure, he added.

The quakes were Turkey’s worst seismic event in decades, rocking an area around Gaziantep that is home to millions of Turkish citizens, displaced Syrians and refugees.

“Time is running out. Hundreds still trapped under the rubble. Every second could mean saving a life,” the Syrian Civil Defense organization, known as the White Helmets, tweeted Tuesday morning in an appeal for international humanitarian aid.

The first earthquake struck at 4:17 a.m. Monday in the middle of a winter storm and wrought destruction across a swath of the country running for hundreds of miles near Turkey’s border with Syria. At least 3,432 people died in Turkey, the country’s Health Ministry said, with more than 20,534 injured and more than 5,600 buildings collapsed. Search teams had rescued almost 2,500 people caught under debris.

Mr. Erdogan has said he expected the number of dead and wounded to rise, and declared a seven-day period of national mourning.

The earthquake could cause up to 10,000 fatalities and initial damages of $1 billion in economic losses, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That estimate is from an automated system that collects seismic data from remote sensors. The USGS estimates the 7.5-magnitude aftershock could lead to an additional $100 million to $1 billion in economic losses and between 100 and 1,000 fatalities.

Earthquake survivors spend the night around a fire in Iskenderun, Turkey.


Burak Kara/Getty Images

Rescue workers attend the scene of a collapsed building in Iskenderun, Turkey.


Burak Kara/Getty Images

The U.S. military, which has thousands of airmen at Incirlik Air Base, about 100 miles west of the earthquake’s epicenter near Gaziantep, reported no operational impact and no injuries.

In Syria, the disaster shook a region of the country that houses millions of people displaced by the country’s civil war, including many living in makeshift camps. It came during an economic crisis in Syria and a cholera outbreak, striking an area with limited hospitals or other infrastructure.

The earthquakes in Syria killed more than 1,600 people in the Aleppo region and several other areas of Syria, according to the Syrian Civil Defense organization and the Health Ministry affiliated with the government in Damascus. The head of the Syrian Red Crescent called for the lifting of international sanctions imposed on Mr. Assad’s government to allow ambulances, firefighting vehicles and other heavy equipment into the country for rescue operations.

“This earthquake is yet another devastating blow to so many vulnerable populations already struggling after years of conflict. It is a crisis within multiple crises,” said Tanya Evans, Syria country director for the International Rescue Committee. She said thousands of people are exposed to below-zero temperatures, with women and children at particularly high risk of abuse, and health facilities strained beyond capacity.

Mohammed Al Ahmad, a Syrian refugee from Deir el-Zour who had been displaced to the Turkish city of Sanliurfa, said what he witnessed during the earthquake was worse than his experience of the Syrian civil war. “What happened in the past two days was like 10 years of war,” he said. “It was like Armageddon.”

Turkish Interior Minister

Suleyman Soylu

said the country had declared its highest state of emergency, which “includes a call for international help.” Mr. Erdogan said his government had received offers of aid and assistance from 45 countries along with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Turkey is a member.

President Biden ordered USAID and other government agencies to assess a possible American relief response to help those most in need, said national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Search-and-rescue teams from Fairfax County, Va., and Los Angeles County Fire Department began to deploy overnight. The EU has also sent dozens of teams.

Across Turkey, the country’s emergency-relief agency marshaled nearly 10,000 people for a search-and-rescue effort, officials said. The Turkish government also mobilized the armed forces along with health officials for a national-disaster response.

—Thomas Grove, Rory Jones and Benoit Faucon contributed to this article.

Write to Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com and Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com

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