Rescuers flood into Hatay – but face a scene of utterly mind-blowing devastation

The tempo of the earthquake rescue operation has changed dramatically in Hatay in southern Turkey.

The province near the Syrian border is one of the areas most impacted by the multiple earthquakes which struck Turkey and Syria this week – if not the worst-hit area.

And the massive scale of the destruction here is utterly mind-blowing.

Now, after days of repeated cries for help and multiple complaints about lack of action and help for the area, it is now flooded with volunteers, aid workers, military police and civil society groups.

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There’s a constant hum of helicopters flying overhead and the scream of sirens everywhere.

There is a stream of ambulances zipping up and down Ataturk Avenue, the main road into the provincial capital, Antakya.

And on Wednesday there are now scores of excavation vehicles and mechanical diggers in the area, as well as winches and cranes to lift the piles of rubble in every corner of this city.

President Erdogan has flown into the earthquake zone today.

His first stop was Kahramanmaras in the southeast, where he admitted there had been mistakes on day one of the relief operation.

He didn’t offer any explanation for the mistakes but insisted everything was now under control.

Heartbreaking line to read labels on bodies

Certainly, the people of Hatay have seen a marked influx of personnel and aid groups to the area in contrast to the previous two days when there appeared to be woefully little.

But such is the scale of this disaster here, they can’t get too much help right now.

We saw several lines of dead bodies lying on pavements; outside apartment blocks, and placed in the centre of fields.

Sometimes they’re just covered in blankets but others have labels stuck on them.

There’s a heartbreaking line of people checking the labels to see if it’s their loved one who has been found.

One man fell in a heap on the black bag as he recognised the name. This mass mourning means there’s no embarrassment in grief and it is rarely private.

Few have homes to retreat to now so he sobbed long and hard, sitting next to the corpse, unable to wrench himself away.

Survivors too scared to sleep indoors

These past few days have jettisoned Turkey into a dystopian nightmare where there appears to be no safety, and no end to the suffering.

Within a split second, so many homes were transformed into concrete coffins – crushing the inhabitants and traumatising the survivors.

Multiple tremors and aftershocks followed the main earthquake, including a separate second quake which brought down even more buildings or left them seriously structurally unsound.

Many insist they can still hear noises from beneath the rubble.

The human body has an incredible capacity to survive. Hope is harder to crush than an eight-storey building, it seems.

‘No help’ as dead made to wait

The urgent search for the living means the dead are having to wait right now.

We saw residents scurrying past groups of bodies laid out on the pavements.

Death doesn’t shock Antakya’s people in quite the same way as it did on 6 February.

But despite the dramatic change in relief efforts here, there are still multiple concerns about the disorganised rescue operations and how they are being conducted.

“We have had no help,” one woman told us. “Those bodies have lain there [on the pavement] for two days now.

“Why do they not clear them?”

She immediately launched into an angry tirade against two volunteers passing by with uniforms on, urging them to come and help clear the collapsed building where her relatives still are.

British team ‘keen to save lives’

We saw a 76-strong team of British search and rescue volunteers who landed in the area and within half an hour had fanned out across four different zones in Antakya to assess the situation and draw up a plan of action to help.

They are the first international team we have spotted here.

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We’re told others have arrived from Russia and Israel – 45 countries have offered their help – but we have seen none on the ground yet in Hatay.

That is until the team of British firefighters trained in search and rescue arrived.

They brought with them four sniffer dogs and specialised search and rescue equipment.

“We’ve been keen to get started,” one of the team told us.

Dog handler Neil Woodmansey said: “We are a heavy rescue team and we have the dogs and the equipment and we’re hoping to make a difference.

“The only reason we are here is to try to save lives.

“There’s always hope and there’s lots of evidence to suggest people in the right conditions survive for quite some time so that’s what we’re here for.”

By Alex Crawford, reporting from Hatay in southern Turkey with cameraman Jake Britton, specialist producer Chris Cunningham and Guldenay Sonumut.

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