Aftershock, rumors spur new panic

Pakistanis flee buildings at night, midday


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Rattled by a powerful aftershock and later rumors that a big earthquake was coming, Pakistanis fled damaged homes and hospitals in the middle of the night and flooded out of multistory buildings in the capital at midday yesterday.

The panic in the wake of last week's earthquake thwarted the rescue of a woman trapped in Muzaffarabad and later briefly paralyzed commerce in Islamabad's government district.

Amid the new confusion, the United Nations' top humanitarian official warned yesterday that the clock was running out for getting to survivors isolated after Saturday's magnitude 7.6 quake.

An expanded fleet of helicopters ferried tons of relief supplies to the north and evacuated hundreds more people in urgent need of medical care. But with winter closing in on the Himalayan region, where as many as 40,000 are believed to have died in the temblor, officials said it was a race against time to get to the injured, cold and hungry.

Truck convoys bringing tents and other supplies to the mountainous heart of the disaster area were augmented by hundreds of private cars as Pakistanis thronged the quake-damaged road to Muzaffarabad to bring clothes, medicine and food to victims.

Jan Egeland, the U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian relief, took an aerial tour of the devastated Kashmir region. He appealed for more helicopters to speed the delivery of supplies to the remote highlands gripped by near-freezing nights and the season's first snow flurries.

"Two million people are in need of new housing. They're facing extreme difficulty, as it is just before winter. This is our worst nightmare," said Egeland, visibly moved by the disaster.

Bemoaning a dearth of aircraft to evacuate the injured, he said, "People are dying as we speak."

Egeland praised the response of the Pakistani government, and people who have contributed money, blankets, food and medicine to people in need. About 30 helicopters have been deployed as aerial lifelines to the north, but more than 100 are needed, said Andrew MacCleod, operations director for the U.N. disaster assistance team that accompanied Egeland on his tour.

One of the latest suspected casualties of the quake was a 22-year-old woman trapped in a collapsed house in Muzaffarabad, about 80 miles north of the capital. Rescue workers told news agencies that they had to break off efforts to reach her after a sharp 1:25 a.m. aftershock shifted the pile of debris where they were working. By the time efforts resumed six hours later in daylight, sniffer dogs indicated that she had died and begun decomposing.

The gripping fear instilled by Saturday's earthquake was palpable in the reaction to the midday rumor of another coming temblor, which unleashed fresh chaos in this capital.

"We can't help ourselves. We are so scared after the earthquake," said Nusrat Kshnood, slightly embarrassed after rushing to grab her twin 6-year-olds from their school in the Jinnad neighborhood when she heard that an earthquake had been predicted for 1 p.m. "I know you can't predict earthquakes. I don't know why I believed the rumor. It's just that we are all in trauma."

Carol J. Williams and Paul Watson write for the Los Angeles Times.

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