Toll from Pakistan quake reaches 327

Reuters and AFP, QUETTA and GWADAR, Pakistan

Thu, Sep 26, 2013 - Page 1

The death toll from a powerful earthquake in southwestern Pakistan rose to 327 people yesterday, local officials said.

“Two-hundred-and-eighty-five bodies have so far been recovered in the Awaran District,” said Abdul Rasheed Gogazai, the deputy commissioner of Awaran, the worst affected area.

“And 42 bodies were found in the neighboring Kech District,” he added.

Tuesday’s magnitude 7.7 earthquake struck Baluchistan, a huge earthquake-prone province of deserts and rugged mountains, and was felt across South Asia.

Pakistan’s army airlifted hundreds of soldiers to help with the aftermath of the worst earthquake in the South Asian country since 2005, when about 75,000 people were killed in the north of the country.

Hundreds of mud houses collapsed on their inhabitants throughout the remote and thinly populated area, officials said.

“We have started to bury the dead,” Gogazai said.

It was hard for rescue teams to reach the area quickly because it is so remote, and some officials said the death toll was likely to rise as emergency workers progressed deeper into the mountains to assess the damage.

Mohammed Shabir, a journalist, described scenes of grief and chaos in villages, saying survivors were digging rows of graves and picking through the debris.

“As far as the human eye can see, all the houses here have been flattened,” he said from Awaran, adding that rescue teams were on the ground distributing supplies.

The earthquake struck Pakistan at a time when the country was still mourning the deaths of more than 80 Christians in a suicide bomb attack on an Anglican church in the city of Peshawar on Sunday.

To the south, on the beach near Gwadar port, crowds of bewildered residents gathered to witness the rare phenomenon of an island that the quake forced out of the sea.

The island has fascinated locals, but experts say it is unlikely to last long.

People were astonished to see a new piece of land surface from the waves.

“It is not a small thing, but a huge thing which has emerged from under the water,” Gwadar resident Muhammed Rustam said. “It looked very, very strange to me and also a bit scary because suddenly a huge thing has emerged from the water.”

Mohammed Danish, a marine biologist from Pakistan’s National Institute of Oceanography, said a team of experts had visited the island and found methane gas rising.

“Our team found bubbles rising from the surface of the island, which caught fire when a match was lit and we forbade our team to start any flame. It is methane gas,” Danish said on GEO television news.

The island is between 18m and 21m high, up to 91.4m wide and up to 37m long, he said. It sits about 20m away from the coast.

Gary Gibson, a seismologist with Australia’s University of Melbourne, said the new island was likely to be a “mud volcano,” created by methane gas forcing material upward during the violent shaking of the earthquake.

“It’s happened before in that area, but it’s certainly an unusual event, very rare,” Gibson said, adding that it was “very curious” to see such activity about 400km from the quake’s epicenter.

The so-called island is not a fixed structure, but a body of mud that will be broken down by wave activity and dispersed over time, the scientist said.