Pakistan capital wakes to chaos

Jolted neighborhood's residents flee as luxury apartment tower collapses

October 09, 2005|By JAMES RUPERT | JAMES RUPERT,NEWSDAY

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Residents of this modern capital had eaten the traditional pre-dawn meal yesterday before the daytime fast observed in this Islamic month of Ramadan, and many had gone back to sleep for a few hours. At 8:50 a.m., the earth shook for about a full minute, jolting many people awake.

In the wealthy neighborhood of walled villas around Newsday's bureau, residents ran into their yards or the streets, watching their homes sway. Flocks of frenzied crows circled overhead.

"We have felt many earthquakes, but not as long and not as strong as this one," said an alarmed cook, Mazloom Khan.

Across town, in an area where luxury apartment complexes rise alongside the city's largest park, residents rushed out of the Margalla Towers, a series of 10-story buildings with spacious balconies overlooking manicured lawns. As they ran, Tower No. 4 swayed and crumpled, accordion-style, into an ugly stack of concrete slabs, rubble, crushed furniture and air conditioners.

On the ninth floor of Tower No. 2, "the shaking knocked me awake in bed," said a businessman who gave his name as Massoud. "I grabbed my family, and we ran down the stairs, reciting the Kalima," the Islamic profession of faith, he said.

"When we came out the door, Tower 4 and half of Tower 5 had collapsed," Massoud said. "A cloud of dust was covering everything, and people were screaming."

Hours later, shouting rescue workers and snorting excavators clawed at the mountain of rubble, the noise making it impossible to listen for cries of possible survivors inside. Beyond a basement garage entrance, crushed cars lay neatly aligned and covered in dust at the bottom of the pile, one with its hazard lights blinking silently.

The tower's collapse became the focus of Islamabad, with pictures of the rescue effort broadcast endlessly on TV. By midday, rescuers had pulled out a half-dozen bodies; last night, an online Pakistani News Agency put the number at 20. From more than a mile away, streams of men and cars pushed through police barricades meant to keep them out and converged on the site. Seas of people -- some worried, some mesmerized, all male -- pressed close around the rescuers, tripping on rubble, and blocking ambulances and dump trucks. Rescue workers pleaded through bullhorns, and soldiers pushed and shoved to move the crowd back from the crushed building.

Then, amid the chaos was discipline. Both Pakistanis and foreigners say Pakistani crowds can be particularly unruly, but yesterday, on one side of the disaster site, rescue officials shouted instructions at a crowd of men, who quickly formed into a long double line. To clear space for the rescue work, they grabbed chunks of jagged concrete and steel and passed them hand to hand down the human conveyor belt to dump them in a park about 200 yards away.

James Rupert writes for Newsday.

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