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More than 3,000 dead as two massive earthquakes rock Turkey and Syria

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A massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit southern Turkey on Monday, killing more than 3,000 people in the country and neighboring Syria with scores more trapped in the rubble as another huge temblor hit the region.

Residents joined rescuers to search for survivors in freezing conditions, with the death toll expected to rise as the level of destruction became clear from the initial powerful pre-dawn temblor.

The quake jolted people from their beds and shook buildings across the Middle East, with tremors felt as far away as Egypt and Israel. Just hours later, a 7.5-magnitude quake hit the same area, raising the specter of a new humanitarian crisis in a region devastated by years of conflict.

Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority said the death toll had reached at least 1,762 people in the country alone, with more than 12,000 others injured.

In Syria, where around 4 million people had been displaced by nearly 12 years of civil war, hundreds more were crushed to death in buildings already destroyed or weakened by bombardment.

The quake hit an area of Syria’s northwest that is divided between government-held territory and the country’s last remaining rebel-controlled enclave. Turkey is home to millions of refugees from the conflict.

At least 593 people were killed in government-controlled areas and 1,411 were injured, according to the country’s health ministry. In opposition-held areas, members of the opposition emergency organization known as the White Helmets said the earthquake had killed at least 700 people and injured 1,500 more.

That takes the combined death toll across the two borders to at least 3,055, with fears it may still rise substantially.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the first quake was centered about 20 miles from Gaziantep, Turkey, a major city and provincial capital, when it struck at 4:17 a.m. local time (8:17 p.m. ET Sunday).

It was centered 11 miles deep, and a strong 6.7-magnitude aftershock rumbled about 10 minutes later. At least 20 aftershocks followed in total, some hours later.

A 7.5-magnitude quake then hit about 100 miles north of Gaziantep at a depth of just 6 miles or so at 1:24 p.m. local time (5:24 a.m. ET), according to the USGS. Shallow earthquakes cause more damage.

In Turkey, the quake sent buildings crumbling, including sections of the Gaziantep castle, its most famous landmark and a historical symbol of the city.

Footage from local and social media showed sections of the ancient castle, which is nestled on a 6,000-year-old hill of ruins, that had tumbled down the hill-side and were left strewn onto nearby roads.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was the country’s largest disaster since 1939, adding that thousands of buildings had collapsed in the earthquake and aftershocks. 

“We were sleeping, then we collapsed on the ground and when it stopped we left the building,” İbrahim Furkan Aydin, 24, told NBC News. He was on vacation with his mother from Istanbul and had arrived in Gaziantep on Saturday.

Around 100 miles northeast, high school teacher Ismet Yilmaz was staying in a student dormitory in the southern Turkish city of Kahta when the earthquake struck, forcing him, his family and his students rushing outside into the freezing cold.

“We woke up the students and went outside,” Yilmaz, 44, said in a message on Instagram from a car he was sheltering in with his wife and three daughters.

Search teams were sifting through the rubble on Monday morning when suddenly the car shook from the second large quake, he said, just as his family was taking a moment to refuel.

“We were caught eating during the earthquake. My daughter came out with a fork in her hand,” the Turkish language and literature teacher said. “All so scared. They went out barefoot.”

Dramatic video footage appeared to show a Turkish news team reporting on the huge early morning earthquake being forced to flee as the second temblor struck.

The reporter was shown standing in a built-up street in the eastern city of Malatya, which was already covered in debris and dust, as a small crowd of people surveyed the damage. Soon sirens began to sound, shouts were heard and then a crashing roar reverberated as the crowd and reporting team ran for safety. A cloud of dust rose around them.

Other footage from Turkish TV showed rescuers pulling a girl and boy — both of them covered in dust but alive — from underneath rubble as a flurry of snow could be seen falling inside what appeared to be a collapsed apartment building.

Offers of help poured in from dozens of countries, as well as the European Union and NATO, promising search-and-rescue teams, emergency funds and medical supplies.

President Joe Biden said he was “deeply saddened by the loss of life and devastation caused by the earthquake” and that the United States would “provide any and all needed assistance.”

The World Health Organization said it was helping the massive international effort to assist the two countries.

Working in pitch dark with only helmet flashlights to aid them through bitterly cold and wet winter conditions, volunteers searched through mangled metal and concrete for those trapped in the rubble.

Strained health facilities and hospitals were quickly filled with wounded, rescue workers said.

“Freezing temperatures have left thousands exposed to extreme cold, and now many are without shelter. With buildings collapsing as people slept, there are fears that hundreds still remain trapped in rubble,” the International Rescue Committee aid group said.

Dramatic images emerged of volunteers rescuing a child covered in mud from the rubble in the town of Zardana in the countryside of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. Another Syrian man was pictured carrying the body of a dead girl still wearing her striped pink and green socks in nearby Azmarin.

The USGS said housing in the region is often constructed of earthquake-vulnerable materials, including unreinforced brick masonry and low-rise concrete frame structures without ducts.

“Overall, the population in this region resides in structures that are extremely vulnerable to earthquake shaking,” according to a USGS analysis.

The region is seismically active, the USGS said, and the initial quake appeared to have been within the vicinity of a triple-junction of tectonics, between the Anatolia, Arabia and Africa plates.

Turkey sits on top of major fault lines and is frequently shaken by earthquakes; 18,000 people were killed in powerful earthquakes that hit northwest Turkey in 1999.

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