Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Quake toll may be `tens of thousands'

IRAN Authorities are now speculating deaths from Friday's earthquake, which had a Richter scale strength of 6.3 and leveled the ancient city of Bam, might reach 40,000

AP , BAM, IRAN

The remains of collapsed houses can be seen in this aerial image in Bam city, about 1000km southeast of Tehran, yesterday.

PHOTO: AP

Overwhelmed relief crews picked through entire city blocks of rubble in search for survivors and bodies a day after an earthquake ruined this southeast Iranian city. As estimates of the fatalities reached tens of thousands, the government appealed for international help and waived visas for foreign relief workers.

The scope of the tragedy was so vast that a reliable death toll was impossible to give. The Interior Ministry estimated 20,000 dead yesterday, but two leading rescue officials said the final toll from Friday's magnitude 6.3 quake could be double that figure.

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

The leader of a relief team, Ahmad Najafi, endorsed the 40,000 estimate, saying that in one street alone in Bam on Saturday, 200 bodies had been extracted from the rubble in one hour's work.

One man interrupted Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari as he spoke to reporters in Bam yesterday. "My father is under the rubble," the man said, with tears rolling down his face. "I've been asking for help since yesterday, but nobody has come to help me. Please help me. I want my father alive."

Lari stressed to reporters that the death toll issued by his ministry was "only an estimate."

"There is not a standing building in the city. Bam has turned into a wasteland. Even if a few buildings are standing, you cannot trust to live in them," he said.

Workers dug with shovels and even their bare hands to extricate bodies and possible survivors from the remains of flattened buildings in this city, whose population was about 80,000 until the quake. In some parts of the city, bulldozers were moving the rubble.

Swiss and German rescue teams arrived in Bam on Saturday with sniffer dogs. Until then, the authorities had used only a few drug-sniffing dogs to look for possible survivors.

A man with white turban and graying beard dug into and lifted rubble from the remains of his house. His family was buried underneath. He and four friends worked with hand and shovel. When a hand of his teenage daughter appeared, he fainted to the ground. Eventually, the bodies of his daughter, wife and two sons were brought out.

"The disaster is far too huge for us to meet all of our needs," President Mohammad Khatami said Friday, declaring three days of mourning. The government said it would waive visa for foreign relief workers and urged aid planes to fly straight to Kerman or Bam airports, instead of Tehran's.

Thousands of residents of the city spent Friday night outdoors, sleeping under blankets in temperatures close to freezing point.

Men and women were often seen slapping their own faces and beating their chests in an Islamic ritual of mourning.

"This is the Apocalypse. There is nothing but devastation and debris," Mohammed Karimi, in his 30s, said Friday when he brought the bodies of his wife and 4-year-old daughter to the cemetery.

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