ISTANBUL — A powerful earthquake struck Turkey and Syria before dawn on Monday, killing more than 3,800 people, destroying thousands of buildings and shattering lives in a region already rocked by war, a refugee crisis and economic distress.
The toll of the dead and injured appeared certain to rise as rescue crews battled rain and snow to find survivors and dig bodies out of the ruins, while families fearing aftershocks desperately tried to find shelter in cars, tents, factories and schools.
The quake, the strongest recorded in Turkey since 1939, reached a magnitude of 7.8, according to the United States Geological Survey, and was also felt in Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. An aftershock measuring 7.5 shook the area again Monday afternoon, complicating rescue efforts and terrifying millions of people living in the quake zone.
In the city of Adana, Turkey, Fatih Kaya stood across the street from what had been the 16-story tower where his brother’s family lived. Now the building had collapsed into a giant mound of rubble that rescue workers were digging through in search of survivors.
“I am waiting to see if my brother and his wife will be taken out,” said Mr. Kaya, 31. The bodies of his brother’s two children had already been found.
“I don’t know what else to do in this moment,” he said.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday in the capital, Ankara, “We do not know where the number of dead and injured can go.” He declared seven days of national mourning.
The epicenter of both the quake and the major aftershock was near the city of Gaziantep in south central Turkey. Early on Tuesday, the government reported that 2,379 deaths had been recorded in an area of Turkey that stretched for more than 250 miles, from the city of Adana in the west to Diyarbakir in the east. Many thousands more were reported injured, as the known toll climbed through the evening.
In Syria, the death toll exceeded 1,450, according to reports from the health ministry and from rescuers in rebel-held areas. Hospitals filled up with the injured in the cities of Idlib, Latakia and Aleppo.
Desperate family members dug for survivors with shovels and their bare hands, while rescue crews used headlamps and floodlights in some places to dig through the night, in the cold.
“This is a race against time and hypothermia,” said Mikdat Kadioglu, a professor of meteorology and disaster management at Istanbul Technical University. “People got caught in sleepwear and have been under the rubble for 17 hours,” he said.
The United Nations, the European Union, the United States, India, Britain, Israel, Russia and even war-torn Ukraine, among other countries, scrambled to send search-and-rescue squads, dogs, medical teams and humanitarian aid. But it was clear that assessing the full extent of the damage, counting the dead, and rebuilding the homes and lives of those affected had only just begun.
The earthquake hit Turkey at a difficult time in a particularly vulnerable zone — along the southern border with Syria. Alongside the area’s native Turkish population live many of the country’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees, many of whom struggle to find work and are in deep poverty. And Turkey has been struggling with high inflation that has eaten into family budgets and fueled frustration with the ruling party and its head, Mr. Erdogan.
Mr. Erdogan is seeking another term in simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections expected on May 14, and some polls had suggested that a challenger from the political opposition could beat him.
His government faced criticism in 2021 for what many saw as a poor response to wildfires in a different part of the south. The effectiveness of his government’s response to the vast needs of the earthquake survivors could affect how Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party fare in the polls.
Turkey, crossed by multiple geologic faults, has long been prone to earthquakes, and the government has put in place regulations aimed at making buildings safe. But images of individual buildings collapsing in clouds of dust while those around them remained standing could raise questions about whether lax enforcement and corruption were involved.
Monday morning in Adana, Tuba Sik, 46, stood across the street from what had been her parents’ apartment building. She had even spent the night there over the weekend.
But now it was gone, and so were they, and she blamed poor construction for the disaster.
“The ground floor shops were constantly under construction,” she said. “With this much construction allowed, this was inevitable.”
Throughout the day, emergency workers themselves were overcome. One broke down in tears as he carried a young girl in pink leggings who had been pulled out alive from the rubble in Kahramanmaras, near the quake‘s epicenter. Hugging her tightly, he collapsed in the snow just a few steps from the destroyed building, as medical personnel crowded around. Just behind him, a father was carrying out his young son, who did not appear to be injured. The father was also overcome with emotion.
The quake struck northwestern Syria, where nearly three million people displaced by the civil war were already enduring a humanitarian crisis. Years of airstrikes and bombardments had already left the infrastructure in a fragile state, with people living in makeshift shelters, tents and damaged buildings.
“What we have in Syria is an emergency within an emergency,” said Mark Kaye, spokesman for the International Rescue Committee, which has more than 1,000 local staff working in northwest Syria.
The stricken area in northern Syria includes zones controlled by anti-government rebels who are backed by Turkey, in addition to zones controlled by the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The two sides technically remain at war, ruling out the possibility of a united humanitarian response and complicating relief efforts.
When the quake hit, Ibrahim al-Khatib rushed his family out of their house in the town of Taftanaz, in northwest Syria, fearing it would collapse. They later learned that a falling wall elsewhere had wounded his uncle and killed his 13-year-old cousin.
“The situation is still bad,” Mr. al-Khatib said, adding that many buildings had been weakened over time by airstrikes. “People don’t dare to return home.”
Monday’s first quake tied the strongest on record in Turkey, also at 7.8 in 1939.
In August 1999, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake that struck the western Turkish city of Izmit killed more than 17,000 people.
Damage from Monday morning’s earthquake could top $1 billion, according to an estimate by the United States Geological Survey. The value of the Turkish lira dropped before recovering slightly, and Turkey’s stock markets tumbled.
In addition to the aid for Turkey promised by numerous countries and agencies, the Israeli government said that it intends to send aid to Syria, even though the two countries have been in an official state of war for decades and have no diplomatic relations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israeli said a request for humanitarian support had been received through diplomatic channels.
Russia also is planning to send rescue workers to Syria, a longtime ally, and will discuss sending aid to Turkey, the Kremlin said.
In Turkish towns and cities across the quake zone, buildings old and new buckled and residents found themselves suddenly deprived of basic comforts.
A historic castle in Gaziantep, first built as a watchtower in the second and third centuries, was heavily damaged in the quake.
Residents searched frantically for places to buy food and bread, but most stores were closed. Some families erected tents in open areas to sleep in, and men chopped wood to light fires to warm their families.
When the shaking started, Sungur Dogan, 22, and his relatives rolled under their beds for protection and recited prayers until it stopped. Outside, they saw children who had fled their homes naked.
“I collapsed in tears,” he said. “Some people do not have cars to get in.”
In the town of Pazarcik, which Turkey called the epicenter of the first quake, television footage showed an apartment building that had partially collapsed, its windows and balconies at a 45 degree angle to the ground. In the mountains nearby, rescue workers dug through rubble coated with a thick layer of snow.
In Hatay Province, the tremor damaged a port on the Mediterranean Sea and brought down part of the Iskenderun State Hospital, its floors collapsing in a tangle of concrete, pillows and mangled hospital beds, Turkish television footage showed. In another video, rescuers working on the rubble heard voices below their feet. A sobbing spouse waited nearby, hoping those voices were those of his wife and mother.
For those who lost their homes in the quake, the reality of lives upended was just sinking in.
When the quake struck, Zekican Bilgic, 20, and his mother, grandmother and two siblings fled their modest house by the light of a flashlight. The fright made his grandmother’s blood pressure spike, so they took her to a hospital, he said.
Mr. Bilgic had spent the rest of his day scared to return to the house for fear it might collapse and trying to stay warm.
“It is so cold here, we can’t bear it anymore,” he said, standing by an outdoor wood fire with other people whose homes were damaged. “In the evening, it will get even colder.”
Ben Hubbard reported from Istanbul and Nimet Kirac from Adana, Turkey. Safak Timur and Gulsin Harman contributed reporting from Istanbul; Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; and Raja Abdulrahim from Jerusalem.