Georgia Baptists moved to prayer as death toll continues to rise in Turkey, Syria


NURDAGI, Turkey — Georgia Baptists who have ministered to earthquake survivors in the past have been moved to prayer for Turkey and Syria where the death count had soared above 17,000 as of Thursday morning.

Rescuers were working in freezing temperatures, sometimes using only their bare hands, to dig through the remains of buildings flattened by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake.

The earthquake and damaging aftershocks cut a swath of destruction that stretched hundreds of miles across southeastern Turkey and neighboring Syria.

Longtime Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief volunteer Chris Fuller, who helped Haiti residents in 2010 in the aftermath of an earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people, said no one comes out of such a disaster unscathed. He urged prayer for all the injured and for the grieving survivors.

“Your life and wellbeing are suddenly out of your control, not only from the earthquake itself but also from the loss of civility as chaos brings out the best and worst in people after the earthquake stops," he said.

Fuller said survivors desperately need Christian agencies that can offer help and hope because the needs aren’t only physical, but emotional and spiritual as well.

Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief Director Dwain Carter said Send Relief International, a Southern Baptist Agency, has already sent food, blankets and supplies into the region. International Mission Board staff in the field are working to distribute the items.

“Today I have asked all Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers as well as all Georgia Baptists to set aside a time to pray for those who have been impacted by this catastrophic event,” Carter said.

Unstable piles of metal and concrete made the search efforts in hard-hit areas of Turkey perilous, while freezing temperatures made them ever more urgent, as worries grew about how long trapped survivors could last in the cold. Snow swirled around rescuers in Turkey's Malatya province, according to footage circulated by the state-run Anadolu news agency.

The scale of the suffering — and the accompanying rescue effort — were staggering.

More than 8,000 people have been pulled from the debris in Turkey alone, and some 380,000 have taken refuge in government shelters or hotels, said Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay. They huddled in shopping malls, stadiums, mosques and community centers, while others spent the night outside in blankets gathering around fires.

Many took to social media to plead for assistance for loved ones believed to be trapped under the rubble. Anadolu quoted Interior Ministry officials as saying all calls were being “collected meticulously” and the information relayed to search teams.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 13 million of the country's 85 million people were affected, and he declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces.

Adelheid Marschang, a senior emergencies officer with the World Health Organization, said up to 23 million people could be affected in the entire quake-hit area, calling it a “crisis on top of multiple crises.”

Turkey is home to millions of refugees from the Syrian civil war. The affected area in Syria is divided between government-controlled territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, where millions live in extreme poverty and rely on humanitarian aid to survive.

Teams from nearly 30 countries around the world have already headed for Turkey or Syria.

As promises of help flooded in, including a pledge of $100 million from the United Arab Emirates, Turkey sought to accelerate the effort by allowing only vehicles carrying aid to enter the worst-hit provinces of Kahramanmaras, Adiyaman and Hatay.

Volunteer first responders known as the White Helmets have years of experience rescuing people from buildings destroyed by Syrian and Russian airstrikes in the rebel-held enclave, but they say the earthquake has overwhelmed their capabilities.

Mounir al-Mostafa, the deputy head of the White Helmets, said they were able to respond efficiently to up to 30 locations at a time, but now face calls for help from more than 700.

“Teams are present in those locations, but the available machinery and equipment are not enough,” he said, adding that the first 72 hours after the earthquake were crucial for any rescue effort.

Nurgul Atay told The Associated Press she could hear her mother's voice beneath the rubble of a collapsed building in the Turkish city of Antakya, the capital of Hatay province. But efforts to get into the ruins had been futile without any heavy equipment to help.

“If only we could lift the concrete slab, we'd be able to reach her,” she said. “My mother is 70 years old, she won't be able to withstand this for long.”

But help did reach some. Several dramatic rescues were reported across the region as survivors, including small children, were pulled from the rubble more than 30 hours after the earthquake.

Residents in a Syrian town discovered a crying infant whose mother apparently gave birth to her while buried in the rubble of a five-story apartment building, relatives and a doctor said.

The newborn was found buried under the debris with her umbilical cord still connected to her mother, Afraa Abu Hadiya, who was found dead, they said.

The baby was the only member of her family to survive from the building collapse in the small town of Jinderis, next to the Turkish border, Ramadan Sleiman, a relative, told The Associated Press.

The Associated Press, with a team of reporters and photographers on the scene in Turkey and Syria, contributed  heavily to this report.