he UK has sent its first aircraft carrying humanitarian aid to Turkey – as the death toll following Monday’s catastrophic earthquake topped 20,000.
An A400M RAF transport plane departed on Thursday night carrying equipment including thousands of thermal blankets to keep survivors warm in sub-zero temperatures.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the border region between Turkey and Syria – an area home to more than 13.5 million people – in the early hours of February 6, followed by subsequent powerful tremors.
The death toll from what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called “the disaster of the century” now stands at nearly 21,000.
The new figure, which is certain to rise, includes over 17,600 people in Turkey and more than 3,300 in civil war-torn Syria.
Bodies lay wrapped in blankets, rugs and tarps in the streets of some cities, with morgues and cemeteries overwhelmed.
Tens of thousands were also injured, and left homeless by the disaster. Aerial footage reveals the scope of devastation, with entire neighbourhoods of high-rises reduced to twisted metal, pulverized concrete and exposed wires.
Though experts say trapped people could survive for a week or more, the chances of finding survivors in the freezing temperatures are diminishing.
In Turkey’s capital, Ankara, temperatures were set to plummet to -7C on Friday and are not expected to rise above 1C in the coming week.
Photos taken on Friday showed the moment 30-year-old Hikmet Yigitbas was rescued after 101 hours spent trapped beneath rubble.
The first RAF aircraft carrying humanitarian aid left RAF Brize Norton on Thursday night.
The UK is expected to send a field hospital and C130 Hercules critical care air support team – which will be used to move casualties within Turkey – in the coming days.
The field hospital will include an emergency department, 24/7 operating theatre, and accompanying clinical staff.
A team of specialists has also been sent from the UK to help coordinate the support.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said on Thursday: “The UK stands ready to assist our close allies and friends during this terrible time. We will keep options open for further assistance as requested.”
Development Minister Andrew Mitchell added: “The UK has moved quickly to get vital emergency supplies to survivors of the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. We’re sending thousands of thermal blankets to Turkey to help those in the hardest-hit areas keep warm in the sub-zero temperatures.”
The Defence Secretary agreed to deploy the aid after the Ministry of Defence and his Turkish counterpart liaised over the last 24 hours.
As emergency crews and panicked relatives continue to dig through the rubble — and occasionally find people alive — the focus has begun to shift to demolishing dangerously unstable structures.
In Kahramanmaras, the city closest to the epicentre of the initial earthquake, a sports hall the size of a basketball court served as a makeshift morgue to accommodate and identify bodies.
Workers continued rescue operations in Kahramanmaras, but it was clear that many who were trapped in collapsed buildings had already died.
One rescue worker was heard saying that his psychological state was declining and that the smell of death was becoming too much to bear.
A British aid worker said he had never experienced “this level of suffering, death and destruction”.
In northwestern Syria, the first UN aid trucks since the quake to enter the rebel-controlled area from Turkey arrived on Thursday, underscoring the difficulty of getting help to people there.
The winter weather and damage to roads and airports have hampered the response. Some in Turkey have complained that the government was slow to respond — a perception that could hurt Erdogan at a time when he faces a tough battle for reelection in May.
Turkey’s disaster-management agency said more than 110,000 rescue personnel were now taking part in the effort and more than 5,500 vehicles, including tractors, cranes, bulldozers and excavators had been shipped.
The country’s Foreign Ministry said 95 countries have offered help.