Death count tops 400 in Egypt amid new fears

October 14, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

CAIRO, Egypt -- A geological team headed into the desert yesterday to search for the source of the disastrous earthquake that struck here, raising fears that an inactive fault could have lurched into life near the Middle East's largest city and the ancient monuments of the pharaohs.

Scores of aftershocks -- three of them up to 4.1 magnitude on the Richter scale -- shook the city in the wake of Monday's 5.9 temblor, which left more than 400 dead and at least 3,369 injured.

Egyptian Red Crescent officials put the number of dead, missing and homeless at 1,000, estimating that 10,000 were injured; only 400 of them were hospitalized.

Many of the dead were schoolchildren who were trampled in stampedes from crowded schools.

Though scientists said the likelihood of a major new quake was minimal, the possibility of a newly active fault line as close as 20 miles south of Egypt's populous capital could raise alarms.

"This was an original earthquake, not resulting from any known fault, and of course we now have concerns about the whole structure of the region," said Sobhi Hassan, vice president of the National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics. "If this is the case, this has to be taken very seriously. We are not going to stop what is going to happen, but at least we must try to lessen the losses."

Other seismic experts said that there are a number of old and inactive fault lines deep underneath the desert around Cairo.

Officials estimate that at least 536 buildings were damaged or collapsed here. Scores of mud-brick buildings in villages outside the city were also destroyed.

And while aid pledges and relief teams poured in from around the world, government officials and aid workers began yesterday to come to terms with this city's tragic lack of quake preparedness.

Experts' worst-case scenario had already played out: in ambulances and rescue workers stuck in traffic jams of panicked motorists; in buildings that collapsed because they violated the city's minimal construction codes; and in teachers who fled their classrooms, leaving students to die.

Monday's main quake was not considered a major temblor. By contrast, the 6.9 quake that struck Northern California in October 1989 caused 10 times as much earth movement but killed only 67 people.

"The large number of casualties was due to the fact that there are many rickety old buildings, as well as shoddily constructed newer ones," said Dr. Joseph S. Mikhail, director of the National Research Institute for Astronomy and Geophysics.

Large parts of Cairo were left untouched, and poorer districts appeared to have been hit hardest.

Ragaa Hafez Helmy, chief civil engineering professor at American University of Cairo, estimated that 30 percent of the buildings in the city of 12 million are susceptible to serious damage.

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