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Hope for earthquake survivors fades as Turkey arrests building developers

On one block where three buildings collapsed in the city of Gaziantep, rescue crews now focus on recovering bodies.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — The chances of anyone being found alive are fading quickly in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.  

Some maintain vigils in makeshift tents but hope is disappearing that any more survivors will be pulled from the rubble of buildings days after two massive earthquakes destroyed them, and a death toll that looks set to keep rising.   

On one block where three buildings collapsed, rescue crews now focus on recovering bodies. Some women wailed in grief for their lost loved ones, but no one wanted to talk when NBC News visited Sunday, their grief still too raw. 

Around 25 miles away in the village of Atalar, some aid made it through on Saturday. Insulation brought in on a government truck was quickly snapped up. Residents said some tents arrived earlier in the day, but it was not enough. 

Frail from days in the freezing cold, Teslime Karacaliogu said she was sleeping in a car with other families.

Collapsed buildings as search and rescue efforts continue in Hatay, Turkey, on Feb. 12, 2023.
Collapsed buildings as search and rescue efforts continue in Hatay, Turkey, on Sunday.Ercin Erturk / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“I have three orphans with me,” she said, bursting into tears as she recalled that one night she was forced to sleep in the mud. “It was snowing and raining when the earthquake happened. We were freezing when we went outside. … It was a terrible day,” she said. 

With each hour that passes, the chances of finding survivors grows more remote as the death toll in Turkey and neighboring Syria rose above 34,000 early Sunday.  

The first of Monday’s devastating quakes struck Turkey and neighboring Syria in the early hours and registered at magnitude- 7.8. It qualified as “major” on the official magnitude calculator. Hours later, a second quake, registering at 7.6-magnitude, struck nearby.

In the city of Kahramanmaras, near the epicenter, Ersin Nalbantoglue said late Friday that  “countless” friends and family members were still missing — and that she’d lost hope that any more would be pulled out alive.

“We’re in shock right now,” she said. “I don’t think we realize the magnitude of this disaster. It’s unbelievable. The whole city is gone now.” 

People pray at the Surp Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on Feb. 12, 2023.
People pray at the Surp Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on Sunday.Bestami Bodruk / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As the shock subsides, some have expressed frustration that rescue operations have proceeded slowly, and that valuable time has been lost during the narrow window for finding people alive beneath the rubble. 

Anger over the extent of the destruction is, however, not limited to individuals, and authorities have been detaining or issuing detention warrants for dozens of people who were allegedly involved in the construction of buildings that collapsed. 

Vowing to punish those responsible, Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said in a statement posted to Twitter on Sunday that proceedings had been launched against 134 people suspected of being responsible for destroyed buildings.

Farther south in Syria, earthquake aid from government-held parts of the country into territory controlled by hardline opposition groups has been delayed, a United Nations spokesperson told Reuters on Sunday, adding the U.N. continued “to work with relevant parties to have access to the area.”

Martin Griffiths, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, tweeted Sunday that the people of northwest Syria had been “failed.” 

“They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived,” he posted. “My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.That’s my focus now.”

Gabe Gutierrez reported from Gaziantep and Leila Sackur from London.