Turkey and Syria face threat of 'secondary disaster' after earthquakes, even as dramatic rescues offer moments of relief

Gabe Gutierrez, Kayla McCormick and Aina J. Khan

Editor's note: Graphic content. The following article contains photos of civilian casualties and injured children.

Search and rescue team are seen as they afford to rescue 36-year-old Murat Babaoglan from under rubble 88 hours after 7.7 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes hit multiple provinces of Turkiye including Osmaniye on February 09, 2023.
Ahmet Izgi | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Fears of a "secondary disaster" were momentarily eclipsed Friday by a flurry of dramatic rescues that saw survivors pulled from the rubble four days after earthquakes devastated Turkey and Syriakilling more than 23,300 people.

Emergency services, volunteers and families have toiled despite diminishing hope for those still trapped in subzero temperatures. Streets have grown heavy with bodies wrapped in blankets, while residents have huddled over fires as the destruction forced makeshift morgues for the dead and shelters for the living.

The government and aid groups have distributed millions of hot meals, as well as tents and blankets, but help was still struggling to reach many people in need — driving anger in southern Turkey and in northern Syria, where civil war has only compounded the difficulties.

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But in Kahramanmaras, near the epicenter of Monday's 7.8-magnitude quake, NBC News witnessed one of the many rescues that offered a glimmer of hope to the millions affected.

Dozens of rescuers clambered around a 57-year old woman, who was still conscious when she was pulled from the wreckage of a building. 

Wrapped in a gold-colored emergency blanket, she was rushed to the hospital. 

It was Murat Kucuktecer, one of the many rescuers at the site, who had first heard the woman's voice. She survived days under the rubble because she was trapped in an air pocket that was insulated, Kucuktacer told NBC News.

"She was inside a 20-inch space where there was enough air, that's how she survived," he said. "It was a miracle, thank God."

"This is the eighth person I've rescued alive. God willing, I still have hope," he added, smiling, as he stood in front of craggy rubble and jagged wires rising from the ground. 

In Gaziantep, there were tears of joy early Friday when 17-year-old Adnan Muhammed Korkut was pulled from the rubble fully conscious, after 94 hours trapped in the basement of an apartment building that had collapsed. 

Unable to move for four days and determined not to starve to death, the teenager survived by drinking his own urine, according to news agencies. 

Hulya Kabakulak is carried after being rescued after 90 hours, as the search for survivors continues, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Hatay, Turkey, February 9, 2023. 
Umit Bektas | Reuters

Video showed that his mother, Buket Pakize, sobbed with joy, embraced and kissed him as he was carried out on a stretcher.

"My son doesn't leave me alone for one hour. God blessed my son, who doesn't leave me alone for one hour. May everyone else be blessed as well," she said, as those around her responded hopefully, "Amen." 

Brimming with joy, one of the rescuers — a woman called Yasmen — embraced the teenager who seemed remarkably lucid after his ordeal. 

"I have a son just like you. I swear to you, I have not slept for four days," she said, as she tenderly held Korkut's face while he looked on with tears in his eyes. "I was trying to get you out, I love you very much."

Despite the moments of joy on the ground, the death toll continued to rise and the focus was also turning to fears of a 'secondary disaster' for those still lacking warm shelter, food and water across the border region, which is home to more than 13.5 million people.

The World Health Organization said that survivors desperately needed vital support providing basic necessities such as clean water and shelter in worsening weather conditions.

"We are in real danger of seeing a secondary disaster which may cause harm to more people than the initial disaster, if we don't move with the same intention and intensity as we are doing on the search and rescue side," said WHO incident manager for the earthquake, Rob Holden at a WHO news conference Wednesday.

A woman sits next to the body of her nephew in Kahramanmaras, on February 9, 2023, three days after a 7,8-magnitude earthquake struck southeast Turkey.
Ozan Kose | AFP | Getty Images

The need is especially dire in rebel-held areas of northwest Syria, grappling with 12 years of civil war and now a border crossing made nearly inaccessible for international aid after the earthquake damaged roads.

The U.S is pushing for more safe passages for U.N. humanitarian supplies across the Turkish border into the region.

Photos taken Tuesday by Maxar Technologies, a U.S. defense contractor headquartered in Colorado, show the scale of infrastructure damage in places like Nurdagi, Turkey.

A bird's-eye view before and after the temblors shows silos that burst open after the earthquake, blanketing the ground with grain.

In a statement issued Friday, the United Nations World Food Programme said it had delivered urgently needed food assistance, primarily hot meals, food packages, and ready-to-eat food rations, to around 115,000 people in Syria and Turkey in the first four days since the earthquakes struck the region.

"For the thousands of people affected by the earthquakes, food is one of the top needs right now and our priority is to get it to the people who need it fast," said WFP Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Corinne Fleischer.