ANTAKYA, Turkey: Searchers were still pulling survivors on Wednesday from the rubble of the earthquake that killed over 11,200 people in Turkey and Syria, even as the window for rescues narrowed.
For two days and nights since the 7.8 magnitude quake, thousands of searchers have worked in freezing temperatures to find those still alive under flattened buildings on either side of the border.
Turkish Red Crescent chief Kerem Kinik had warned that the first 72 hours were critical in search and rescue efforts but pointed to complications of "severe weather conditions".
Emergency workers on Wednesday saved some children found under a collapsed building in the hard-hit Turkish province of Hatay, where whole stretches of towns have been levelled.
"All of a sudden we heard voices and thanks to the excavator... immediately we heard the voices of three people at the same time," said rescuer Alperen Cetinkaya.
"We are expecting more of them ... the chances of getting people out of here alive are very high," he added.
Officials and medics said 8,574 people had died in Turkey and 2,662 in Syria from Monday's 7.8-magnitude tremor, bringing the total to 11,236 — but that could yet double if the worst fears of experts are realised.
The World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned that time is running out for the thousands injured and those still feared trapped.
'People dying every second'
Due to the scale of the damage and the lack of help coming to certain areas, survivors said they felt alone in responding to the disaster.
"Even the buildings that haven't collapsed, were severely damaged. There are now more people under the rubble than those above it," a resident named Hassan, who did not provide his full name, said in the rebel-held town of Jindayris.
“There are around 400-500 people trapped under each collapsed building, with only 10 people trying to pull them out. And there is no machinery,” he added.
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The White Helmets leading efforts to rescue people buried under rubble in rebel-held areas of Syria have appealed for international help in their "race against time".
They have been toiling since the quake to pull survivors out from under the debris of dozens of flattened buildings in northwestern areas of war-torn Syria that remain outside the government's control.
"International rescue teams must come into our region," said Mohammed Shibli, a spokesperson for the group known formally as the Syria Civil Defence.
"People are dying every second; we are in a race against time," he told AFP from neighbouring Turkey.
Syria appeals for EU help
The issue of aid to Syria was a delicate one, and the sanctioned government in Damascus made an official plea to the EU for help, the bloc's commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarcic said.
A decade of civil war and Syrian-Russian aerial bombardment had already destroyed hospitals, collapsed the economy and prompted electricity, fuel and water shortages.
The European Commission is "encouraging" EU member countries to respond to Syria's request for medical supplies and food, while monitoring to ensure that any aid "is not diverted" by President Bashar al-Assad's government, Lenarcic noted.
In parts of quake-hit Turkey, shops were closed, there was no heat because gas lines have been cut to avoid explosions, and finding petrol was tough.
Some families of the missing were trying to stay hopeful for a rescue but were struggling.
"My nephew, my sister-in-law and my sister-in-law's sister are in the ruins. They are trapped under the ruins and there is no sign of life," said Semire Coban, kindergarten teacher, in Turkey's Hatay.
"We can't reach them. We are trying to talk to them, but they are not responding... We are waiting for help. It has been 48 hours now," she said.
Dozens of nations including the United States, China and the Gulf States have pledged to help, and search teams as well as relief supplies have already arrived. (Story continues below)
A man carries the body a child pulled out from the rubble in the Syrian town of Harim, in the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib on the border with Turkey, on Wednesday. (Photo: AFP)
Up to 23 million affected
A winter storm has compounded the misery by rendering many roads — some of them damaged by the quake — almost impassable, resulting in traffic jams that stretch for kilometres in some regions.
The World Health Organization has warned that up to 23 million people could be affected by the massive earthquake and urged nations to rush help to the disaster zone.
The European Union was swift to dispatch rescue teams to Turkey after the massive earthquake struck the country on Monday close to the border with Syria.
But it initially offered only minimal assistance to Syria through existing humanitarian programmes, because of EU sanctions imposed since 2011 on Assad's government over its brutal crackdown on protesters that spiralled into a civil war.
The Turkey-Syria border is one of the world's most active earthquake zones.
Monday's earthquake was the largest Turkey has seen since 1939, when 33,000 people died in the eastern Erzincan province.
In 1999, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake killed more than 17,000.
Experts have long warned that a large quake could devastate Istanbul, a megalopolis of 16 million people filled with rickety homes.
A camp set up by the government in the southeastern Turkish city of Kahramanmaras. (Photo: AFP)