Covering Turkey's Devastating Earthquake

Spotlight / Editorial Spotlight
Chris McGrath
Getty Images
Dec 20, 2023
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey and neighboring Syria February 6, 2023 killing over 50,000 people . More than 300,000 buildings were damaged, and scores were left homeless and jobless.  Capturing scenes of despair and destitution, Getty Images photographers Burak Kara and Chris McGrath recall their experiences covering this humanitarian disaster.
Photographer Burak Kara recalls his initial shock at the early reports of the earthquake early in the morning of February 6.  " Around 4:35 am, the TV announced that the earthquake's magnitude was 7.4, with the epicenter in the Pazarcık district of Kahramanmaraş. '7.4 magnitude! That's massive,' I said, feeling my body trembling. 'It could be one of the most  powerful earthquake in recent Turkish history."  Burak hurried to pack and worked to find a way to the quake zone.  "Most companies said they automatically stopped rentals, and they couldn't provide a car. Luckily, one company representative understood the situation and said, 'I'll give you a car; you're journalists, and you need to go there.' He rented us the largest SUV he had. That vehicle became my home and office for the next 21 days."  Burak was soon joined by Getty staff photographer Chris McGrath, who noted that "logistically it was a very difficult situation to work in, obviously everything had been destroyed and it was very difficult to find petrol, food and a safe place to sleep... we ended up sleeping in our cars at a semi destroyed gas station and this became sort of our base."
There was no internet, chaos prevailed everywhere, roads were closed, and we encountered a city devastated by an atomic bomb and abandoned to its fate.
Kara made a harrowing drive to the quake zone  where he "witnessed accidents every few kilometers due to snow and blizzard conditions"  and "the road was crowded with people traveling in their private vehicles to reach their relatives and search and rescue teams."  Upon arriving in one of the hardest hit areas in Hatay province, Kara notes "the historical and ancient city of Hatay, which I had visited dozens of times in my professional life, was in ruins. There was no internet, chaos prevailed everywhere, roads were closed, and we encountered a city devastated by an atomic bomb and abandoned to its fate."

Kara and McGrath describe the scene in Hatay.  Kara writes," I must have walked about 20 kilometers on the first day, and it was an incredibly difficult day. I remember
crying repeatedly at the scenes I witnessed. The most challenging part was understanding the pleas of people speaking their own language and witnessing their great suffering."  McGrath remembers "the one thing that stood out to me more than anything, was the level of grief that I witnessed, and it was something I had never experienced before on other assignments." 

Burak Kara recalls the challenging long days and nights as rescue workers searched for survivors. " The silence during search and rescue operations in the wreckage and the calls of the search and rescue teams asking, "Can anyone hear me?" still echo in my ears. While
photographing the rescue operations, we had to stand still for along time.... in the freezing cold."  Chris McGrath recounts "Search and rescue operations went on for days and families would wait night and day next to their collapsed apartments, with the hope that search and rescue teams would find their family members alive.  As days went by this hope turned to grief as family members began to realize that the chances of finding survivors was become less and less...Many people didn’t just lose one family member, they lost four, five, six or more....I talked with a man there that had lost in total 32 family members and relatives."
Around three million people were displaced in the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria, and  recovery including that of the economy, will take years.  The emotional recovery of those impacted by the devastation of February 6th may never fully heal.
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