Sun, Oct 16, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Indian man claws his way through dirt to freedom


The killer earthquake inundated the truck and its 64 passengers with a mountain of debris along a lonely stretch of road near the India-Pakistan border. With others crushed to death, Abdul Hamid Sheikh somehow managed to claw his way free.

"The mountain fell on us. It completely buried the truck and everything around it ... all I could see was the darkness of a grave," said Sheikh, a 25-year-old mason, recovering in a hospital from his dramatic ordeal.

The accident killed 60 people -- all workers heading to maintain the bridge that straddles the border between India and Pakistan. The quake also caused severe damage to the bridge.

"We suddenly heard a loud rumbling noise. Before we could make out what was happening, we were buried," Sheikh said.

His anxious mother sat by his side, offering him water.

Lying in the trauma ward of Srinagar's Sri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital, Sheikh suffered severe leg wounds and broken ribs, and was one of thousands of people injured in Indian-controlled Kashmir, where more than 1,350 people perished in last weekend's earthquake.

He and his fellow workers were hired by the Indian army to lay roads in border regions. They boarded the military truck in Sheikh's hometown of Uri, 100km north of Srinagar.

Less than an hour later, the earth shook and boulders and dirt engulfed the vehicle, a few kilometers short of the bridge. As boulders rained down on the truck, Sheikh and some of the workers jumped out and hid under the carriage. The others were too stunned to react.

"I couldn't breathe after a while and there was no way of getting out," Sheikh said. "Everything was dark and covered by dirt, rock and debris."

When it became unbearable, he screamed: "Do something!"

He heard others moan, and realized that at least a few of his co-workers were still alive.

"That gave me courage. I began to dig at the dirt with my hand," he said.

Others joined him.

"We tried pushing the debris toward the ridge on the side of the road. We used our hands furiously," he said.

Gradually they managed to create a small hole which let the air in.

"We could breathe. But we had little energy to go on," Sheikh said.

After a break, they started digging again with their scraped, tired hands.

A boulder would not budge. The four surviving men -- Sheikh, the driver and two workers -- pushed as hard as they could. It gave way, and the four men scrambled out.

"I don't know how I felt. Maybe like a baby coming out of a mother's womb," he said. "It's Allah's blessing."

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