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Rescue crews in Turkey and Syria continue to search through rubble for survivors

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We start with the gripping scenes in southern Turkey as the country struggles to save people. There's damage across hundreds of miles of Turkey and northern Syria, with the death toll now over 7,000 in both countries, 20,000 more are injured, millions affected in one way or another, with many homeless in the winter cold. NPR's Ruth Sherlock made it to one of the worst hit cities and saw rescue attempts there. She joins us now. And a note for our listeners that some of the details of this conversation may be difficult to hear. Hi, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So you went to a city you've reported from in the past. First, tell us where you were and what you saw in your approach.

SHERLOCK: Sure. Well, we set out from Adana, which is a city that's been spared from the worst of the impacts of the earthquake. And it's normally a two-hour drive to Antakya, our destination, a city of about 400,000 people close to the border with Syria. On the way, we passed this huge fire at the port in a coast city. And then around 20 miles out of Antakya, we started seeing this constant stream of ambulances, you know, sirens wailing, speeding out of town. Those coming in were people going to try to find loved ones they've lost touch with or bring medicines or food. Then we began to see the destruction and, I mean, building after building collapsed. In one area, they were, you know, on either side of the road. There was just debris, and I could smell rubber, dust and clearly the putrid smell of dead bodies as well.

SUMMERS: Oh, my gosh. Ruth, describe what you saw of the rescue efforts there. What was it like?

SHERLOCK: Look. It's become clear that the damage is just much greater than any rescue teams can tackle. It feels utterly hopeless in there. You know, most of these were residential buildings, and the earthquake happened in the dead of night, so people were asleep. You can only imagine how many are inside those that are destroyed. And there's so many destroyed. There is just no way that rescue teams can get to all of them. I saw, you know, some rescue teams in official clothing on some buildings, some civilian volunteers - like, we met these university students from another part of Turkey - on others. But then also there's dazed residents or desperate relatives just trying to go through the rubble.

SUMMERS: Wow, I mean, it's incredibly heartbreaking. I understand that you spent several hours watching one rescue effort out of all of these. Can we just take a moment to talk about that story, that one person and their family and what they experienced?

SHERLOCK: Absolutely. So we came to this one building, and it had these pink walls, and it used to be seven floors, but it was now half collapsed on its side. And I met this lady, Hamideh Mansulolu, and she's in her 70s. And she was standing outside watching intently, holding her head in her hands as this digger chipped away at the building. I was traveling with Erin O'Brien. She's a freelance journalist who works for The Economist. And she helped translate the conversations we had with Hamideh. Hamideh told us she knows her son is inside, and she thinks he's alive because she's seen him trapped there.

My God. How did she find him?

ERIN O'BRIEN: His brother dug with his hands to find him.

HAMIDEH MANSUROGLU: (Speaking Turkish).

SHERLOCK: So she says yesterday morning, she'd seen him - she'd found him, and she'd seen him move a foot. But he was just trapped amid the collapsed concrete. So we stayed with this family as this rescue worker with a digger tried to, like, pull the rubble away, but you can imagine how dangerous that is. The building could collapse at any moment. And every time that he got close to where Sedat, the man, was, his mom would, like, wince in terror and pain and shout out, be careful, be careful. And, you know, as time went on, we spoke with a rescue worker there who was trying to help. He didn't want to give his name.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Turkish).

O'BRIEN: He is not sure if this guy's alive. He thinks he heard a sound, but he can't be sure.

SHERLOCK: Eventually, they did find Sedat, but it was too late. His body was brought out and wrapped in a blanket for his mother to say goodbye.

SUMMERS: Wow. That's so tragic. And I have to imagine there are stories and scenes like that that are being repeated all across the city.

SHERLOCK: Yes, absolutely. You know, we went deeper inside towards the city center, but the roads were cut by this point, so we set out on foot. And it was such a strange change because we went from this place of wailing sirens and drama to this kind of eerie silence with apocalyptic scenes. There were rescue workers trying to pull people out of the rubble but without any machineries, no cars, no ambulances. And on one street, we found six bodies there just been wrapped in blankets from people's homes. We spoke to a rescue worker who stood near them, Shahin.

SHAHIN: (Speaking Turkish).

SHERLOCK: You know, he's saying for the buildings that collapsed vertically, the floors crush in on each other. And from those buildings, they are not finding anyone coming out alive. And that's exactly the situation where we were, buildings completely flattened. He says the six bodies are the only ones they've been able to pull out from under the rubble after a whole day of work.

SUMMERS: And Antakya is close to Syria. Ruth, what can you tell us about the situation over the border?

SHERLOCK: Well, it's - what we're hearing is that there are similar scenes to what we're seeing in Antakya. But one thing I should note is that Turkey is a big country with a powerful economy and a functioning government. In Syria, there's a civil war ongoing. And this has happened in an area where there are already millions of refugees. And rescue - you know, hospitals have been damaged in the conflict. There were already medical shortages before this earthquake happened. Now they're completely overwhelmed, and rescue workers are trying to get people out of the rubble without the kind of equipment that we saw in Antakya.

And, you know, one question now for both countries is, what happens next? There's going to be shortages of everything - water, food and fuel, all the basics that you need in these cities. And that's going to be a huge logistical challenge. And another question is, what's going to happen to the likely hundreds of thousands of people who have now been left homeless. Just in Antakya alone, we didn't see one building standing that you could live in any more. So the aftermath is going to be felt for a long, long time, and the death toll is going to mount.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in southern Turkey. Ruth, thank you.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.