GAZIANTEP, Turkey (AP) - The search for survivors of the earthquake that toppled thousands of buildings in Turkey and Syria reached a critical stretch on Wednesday, with rescue teams from two dozen countries helping locals sift through the rubble and experts warning that the realistic window to find any in the subfreezing temperatures was quickly closing.
The death toll from the magnitude 7.8 quake that struck Monday neared 12,000, making it the deadliest since a magnitude 9.0 quake off the coast of Japan in March 2011 triggered a tsunami, killing nearly 20,000. Nearly all of Turkey is very seismically active so the country is no stranger to devastating earthquakes - a 7.4 magnitude temblor that struck near Istanbul in 1999 killed an estimated 18,000 people.
With the damage from Monday's quake so extensive and spread so widely, experts said the window for survival was quickly closing, even with so many people involved in the rescue effort.
The extent of the devastation was breathtaking, with rows of apartment blocks reduced to twisted metal, rubble and dust in many communities. Rescuers formed human chains as they tried to dig through collapsed buildings, urging quiet every so often in the hopes of hearing stifled pleas for help.
GLIMPSES OF HOPE
The overwhelming sadness has given way to moments of muted joy. In the town of Jinderis in northwestern Syria, where 12 years of conflict has complicated rescue efforts, residents digging through a collapsed building Monday afternoon discovered a crying infant whose mother appears to have given birth to her while buried in the rubble. The girl's mother, father and four siblings didn't survive. Rescuers pulled another little girl from the wreckage of a collapsed building in the same town that evening.
Former Chelsea and Newcastle forward Christian Atsu was rescued from the ruins of a collapsed building in the southern Turkey city of Antakya, where his current team, Hatayspor, is based, the Ghana Football Association tweeted Tuesday.
In the southern Turkey city of Kahramanmaras, Mufit Hisir told The Associated Press that rescuers pulled his mother and brother alive from the rubble after digging for hours.
Many whose homes were damaged or destroyed expressed frustration at the Turkish government response, having to sleep in cars, shelters or outside in subfreezing temperatures.
"We don't have a tent, we don't have a heating stove, we don't have anything. Our children are in bad shape. We are all getting wet under the rain and our kids are out in the cold," Aysan Kurt, 27, told the AP. "We did not die from hunger or the earthquake, but we will die freezing from the cold. It shouldn't be this way. No one is sending help."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the especially hard-hit Hatay province, where more than 3,300 people died and entire neighborhoods were destroyed. Residents there have accused the government of being slow to send help.
Erdogan, who faces a tough battle for reelection in May, acknowledged "shortcomings" in the response but said the weather had been a factor. The earthquake destroyed the runway in Hatay's airport, further disrupting the response.
He also hit back at critics, saying "dishonorable people" were spreading "lies and slander" about the government's response.
Turkish authorities said they were targeting disinformation, and an internet monitoring group said access to Twitter was restricted despite it being used by survivors to alert rescuers.
OFFERS OF AID
Crews from at least 24 countries, including those at odds over the war in Ukraine, are taking part in the rescue operation.
Among the countries helping is Turkey's neighbor and historic rival Greece, which is sending Turkey a team of 21 rescuers, two rescue dogs and a special rescue vehicle, together with a structural engineer, five doctors and seismic planning experts in a military transport plane.
And aid groups including the International Committee of the Red Cross are sending assistance, including medical equipment, food, blankets, mattresses and other essential items.