Estonian rescuer in Turkey: The situation is apocalyptic

People in Kahramanmaras after the earthquake.
People in Kahramanmaras after the earthquake. Source: SCANPIX / DPA

The situation in the south of Turkey that experienced a strong earthquake last Monday in which tens of thousands died is apocalyptic, a member of the Estonian rescue team sent to the country said.

"The extent of the disaster is unimaginable. Going from one city to the next, we can see 90 percent of buildings either completely or partially destroyed, Erkki Põld told "Vikerhommik" on Monday.

He said that the death toll is sure to rise (34,000 people had been confirmed dead Monday morning – ed.) and it is possible the final number will never be determined as the destruction is extensive and it will not be possible to get to people everywhere.

"People are outside, building fires to survive, burning tires, sleeping on top of cardboard boxes out in the street, erecting makeshift tents made out of plastic and other materials, cooking on open fires – moving around here feels apocalyptic. I'm extremely sorry to see people going through something like this," Põld said of what he saw and felt.

The humanitarian catastrophe is made worse in that local customs require people to wash and properly bury their loved ones, while they just cannot get to them under the rubble. "If a family member has died, people simply sit next to the rubble, despairing, not sleeping or eating, which is causing another humanitarian disaster."

Some people have decided to leave the area, which is causing major traffic jams," Põld added.

Help has started reaching the area, with field hospitals and camps set up to help the locals. "But it is too little, as the disaster is just so extensive."

The Estonian rescue team has spent the last two days working in Antakya, which is a city of over 400,000 people where the larger sleeping districts are reminiscent of Lasnamäe in Tallinn. "Large apartment buildings have collapsed and the situation is catastrophic," Põld admitted.

Asked what has been the most difficult aspect of rescue efforts so far, he pointed out logistics. "Logistical operations have been difficult from where we're standing because resources are in very short supply. But the hardest thing is seeing the conditions for the locals and how desperate they are."

Põld said that the Estonian rescue team has worked closely with the locals as they know the potential whereabouts of those still in need of rescuing.

"It is simply that the extent of it is so incomprehensible, you cannot enter every collapsed building, which is why we actively worked with local residents to learn where they think people could still be alive. We picked the buildings based on those hints," the rescue expert said.

The Estonian rescue team has worked 22 total locations and looked through around 50 ruined buildings in the week they've been in Turkey.

"The locals are very grateful. It inspires them not to give up if they see international rescue crews coming to help."

Asked about looting, Põld admitted that while the Estonian team worked in shifts around the clock at first, they have not worked nights for the last few days.

"People are just so desperate, which has caused situations where we see armed people in the streets, there's looting and people might be taking advantage of the situation. We have heard shooting but have not been in danger ourselves. Still, we decided to no longer work nights following security concerns," he remarked.

The Estonian rescue team finished their assignment on Sunday evening, started packing up its base camp Monday morning and is set to head to the airport in the afternoon. The team is expected back in Estonia by Tuesday evening.

U.N. relief chief Martin Griffiths has suggested that the death toll could exceed 55,000 in Turkey and Syria.


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Editor: Mait Ots, Marcus Turovski

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