Death toll up to 20,000 in Iranian quake
( 2003-12-27 15:52) (Agencies)
Entire blocks of buildings lay crushed and survivors lined up blanket-wrapped bodies in the street after a devastating earthquake leveled nearly three-quarters of the Iranian city of Bam on Friday. The preliminary death toll rose to 20,000, the Iranian Interior Ministry said, and rescue crews said it could go even higher.
Officials said an accurate count was impossible with many victims still trapped under the rubble, and early death toll estimates have fluctuated greatly. An exact toll is not expected until much later because of the scope of the tragedy.
"The disaster is far too huge for us to meet all of our needs," Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said. "However, all the institutions have been mobilized."
Two senior officials involved in the relief operation said they feared the final toll from Friday's temblor could be 40,000 dead.
The leader of a relief team, Ahmad Najafi, said 40,000 dead was his estimate of the ultimate toll. He said in one street alone in Bam on Saturday, 200 bodies had been extracted from the rubble in one hour's work.
"As more bodies are pulled out, we fear that the death toll may reach as high as 40,000," said Akbar Alavi, the governor of Kerman city, the local provincial capital. "An unbelievable human disaster has occurred."
The quake also destroyed much of Bam's historic landmark ！ a giant medieval fortress complex of towers, domes and walls, all made of mud-brick, overlooking a walled Old City, parts of which date back 2,000 years. Television images showed the highest part of the fort ！ including its distinctive square tower ！ crumbled like a sand castle down the side of the hill, though some walls still stood.
The government asked for international assistance, particularly search and rescue teams. The United States promised to send aid, as did numerous European nations.
By nightfall Friday, little outside relief was seen in Bam, a city of 80,000 people in southeastern Iran. With temperatures dropping to 21 degrees, survivors built bonfires in the rubble-strewn streets to keep warm, many shivering in their nightclothes, they only clothes they had since the pre-dawn quake.
With hospitals in the area destroyed, military transport planes had to evacuate many wounded for treatment to the provincial capital Kerman and elsewhere. At least four C-130s had ferried out injured so far, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari told Iranian television.
At Bam's only cemetery, a crowd of about 1,000 people wailed and beat their chests and heads over some 500 corpses that lay on the ground as a bulldozer dug a trench for a mass grave.
"This is the Apocalypse. There is nothing but devastation and debris," Mohammed Karimi, in his 30s, said at the cemetery, where he had brought the bodies of his wife and 4-year-old daughter.
"Last night before she went to sleep she made me a drawing and kissed me four times," he said of his daughter, Nazenine, whose body he held in his arms. "When I asked, 'Why four kisses?' she said, 'Maybe I won't see you again, Papa,'" Karimi told an AP photographer, as tears streamed down his face.
The quake struck at 5:28 a.m., while many were asleep. IRNA put the magnitude at 6.3; the U.S. Geological Survey measured it at 6.5. Survivors were panicked throughout the day by aftershocks, including one that registered a magnitude of 5.3, according to the geophysics institute of Tehran University.
The interior minister said 70 percent of residential Bam had been destroyed, and there was no electricity, water or telephone lines. Iran's Red Crescent, the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross, said rescue and relief teams had been sent to Bam from numerous provinces, including Tehran.
"Our immediate two priorities are dealing with the people who are trapped and transferring the wounded to other areas," Lari said from Kerman province. "Our biggest difficulty so far is rescuing people because there is no electricity and people are doing what they can with flashlights," he said.
Iranian television showed entire neighborhoods collapsed. On one street, only a wall and the trees were standing. People carried away injured, while others sat sobbing next to the blanket-covered corpses of their loved ones. One man held his head in his hands and wailed.
The quake's epicenter was outside Bam, and nearby villages were also damaged in the region, which is home to about 230,000 people and lies about 630 miles southeast of the capital Tehran.
In Iran, quakes of more than magnitude 5 usually kill people because most buildings are not built to withstand earthquakes, although the country sits on several major faultlines and temblors are frequent. Iran has a history of earthquakes that kill thousands of people, including one of magnitude 7.3 that killed about 50,000 people in northwest Iran in 1990.
Karimi, the governor, said the historic section of Bam, which was unoccupied, was 80 percent destroyed in the quake.
The United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, has asked Iran for permission to send an UNESCO team of experts to the fortress, which has been under consideration for the agency's list of protected World Heritage Sites. "The site of Bam is considered one of the very, very important sites of mud-brick architecture," said Mounir Bouchenaki, a UNESCO heritage specialist.
Parts of the Old City ！ once an important stop on the Silk Road through Asia ！ date back 2,000 years, though most of the structures were built in the 15th to 18th centuries.
Khatami declared three days of mourning. "God willing, we will try even harder to meet your needs," he said in a phone call to Kerman's governor that was aired on television.
Shocked Iranians mobilized to help. In Tehran, volunteers jammed a blood donation center. In Fars province, neighboring Kerman, the governorate asked for donations of blankets and food and for volunteers to head to Bam to help in relief work.
Russia planned to send two planes of rescue workers and equipment on Saturday. A 10-member Swiss team, with search dogs, was leaving Friday for Iran.
The White House said the United States will offer humanitarian aid to Iran. "This is a terrible tragedy," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said while briefing reporters aboard Air Force One.
Bush had not spoken to any Iranian leaders, and it was not immediately clear whether any aid discussions would be carried out through an intermediary organization or a third country, said McClellan. The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The U.N. Disaster Management Team in Tehran will send 36 to 40 tons of relief items such as tents, blankets, kitchen sets, water purification units, high energy biscuits and trauma kits, said Madeleine Moulin-Acevedo, a U.N. official in Geneva.
Japan pledged to send rescue workers and $234,000 worth of blankets, power generators and other relief supplies to help with the recovery. Austria said it was preparing to send up to 120 disaster relief specialists as well as a dog rescue team.
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