Iranian quake toll at 25,000

more trapped

Rescuers dig into debris with shovels and hands, searching for survivors

Up to 40,000 feared dead

Aftershocks spread fear, damage as survivors seek medical care, bury bodies

December 28, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KERMAN, Iran -- As rescue workers raced to the ancient city of Bam, officials there raised the death toll from Friday's 12-second earthquake to 25,000 and worried that it could go much higher.

Interior Minister Abdolvahed Moussavi Lari said yesterday on state television from Bam: "The city is ruined. More than 70 percent of it is destroyed."

Tens of thousands of the injured crowded field hospitals or lay in the streets. Survivors and rescuers dug frantically to uncover those still trapped.

In Bam, the Reuters news agency reported, one man cried over the body of his teen-age son, calling out, "Wake up, wake up!" Another parent mourned her two children, saying, "I am burying myself in this grave."

Aftershocks jolted the area, shaking down already crumbled low-rise dwellings made of clay tile, brick and concrete block.

Iradj Sharifi, rector of the faculty of medicine in Kerman, said that in the pre-dawn earthquake, "5,000 people were killed on the spot, and there are 20,000 people under the rubble."

Brigadier Mohammadi, commander of the army in southeastern Iran, told state television, "We need help -- otherwise we will be pulling corpses, not the injured, out of the rubble."

Dozens of international relief flights and supply shipments sped to the site, transporting everything from skilled rescue workers to water purification tablets. The United States said it was sending tons of medical supplies in a military airlift, as well as rescue squads and medical teams.

There were grim but uncertain predictions that the death toll -- in a 2,000-year-old city of 80,000 people -- might keep growing.

"As more bodies are pulled out, we fear that the death toll may reach as high as 40,000," said Akbar Alavi, the governor of Kerman, the provincial capital, according to the Associated Press. "An unbelievable human disaster has occurred."

The earthquake, which Iranian agencies measured at a magnitude of 6.3 and American agencies at 6.7, rocked Bam, 610 miles southeast of the capital, Tehran, at 5:28 a.m. Friday.

Volunteer rescue workers from around the country hurried into the city -- some with shovels, some joining survivors in clawing through the rubble barehanded. About 7,000 police officers were sent to help, Reuters reported.

International rescue teams arrived with sniffer dogs and detection equipment. One dog team dug out 20 survivors, the official Islamic Republic News Agency said.

The use of dogs, which are considered unclean by most Muslims, was a sticking point in rescue efforts in 1990, after the deadliest quake ever to strike Iran killed about 50,000 people.

Yesterday, state television showed bloodied victims being loaded onto planes. A provincial official, Saeed Iranmanesh, told the Associated Press that more than 9,000 were sent to hospitals throughout the country.

The bodies of the dead lined streets. The International Red Crescent advised people in the city to wear gloves and face masks because of fears of an epidemic, Reuters reported.

Broad trenches were dug with earthmoving equipment to bury hundreds of bodies at a time, the Associated Press reported. State television showed bodies being stowed in the trunks of cars. At one cemetery, the Associated Press said, workers dug a mass grave as a cleric and 10 people prayed over a second.

Muhammad Karimi brought the bodies of his wife and 4-year-old daughter for burial, the news agency said. "This is the apocalypse," he said. "There is nothing but devastation and debris."

At a news conference, Reuters reported, the interior minister said: "Bam has turned into a wasteland. Even if a few buildings are standing, you cannot trust to live in them."

Aftershocks wrecked many buildings that had survived the initial quake. Witnesses said the last section of Imam Khomeini hospital to remain standing collapsed yesterday during an aftershock. Another hospital had been destroyed.

About 600 prisoners escaped a ruined jail, local officials said, and other prisoners died in its wreckage, Reuters reported.

Refugees poured out of Bam yesterday, according to Agence France-Presse, jamming the main road to Kerman. Tens of thousands of people, their homes destroyed, spent the night outside.

With temperatures hovering around freezing overnight, some gathered around fires. Many continued to search the rubble for relatives.

One woman cried and begged for help in front of her leveled house, according to a local journalist. The woman, Batul, 48, said her husband, 55, and three of her five children had died. Her daughter, 17, was badly injured but was among the relatively fortunate victims who received help at field hospitals. She had managed to find her husband's body, she said.

"I have lost everything, my home and my family," Batul said. "We were all asleep when the earthquake happened, and all I could do was to drag my 12-year-old son out of the house."

Reports of injured and dead tourists began to filter in. The U.S. State Department said one American was killed and another seriously injured.

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