Greek quake death toll rises past 60

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SPIROS HAD been travelling all night from Thessaloniki and was shaking with anticipation. Would his girlfriend, Bigi, be alive? Was she one of those already brought out dead? Or was she still entombed beneath tons of fallen concrete?

It was dawn yesterday in Menidi, the industrial district north-east of Athens that bore the brunt of Tuesday's earthquake, the strongest to hit Greece since 1981. Spiros, 20, a soldier, was standing helplessly outside the remains of the Ricomex factory, under which at least 30 people were trapped.

The quake was not on the same scale as in Turkey last month, but the eyes of the nation were on this grim heap of rubble. There was no mad scramble to rake out the bodies; they did not tear at the masonry with their bare hands. Instead, rescue workers set about their task methodically and with cool purpose.

It was a contrast with the heartbreaking scenes in Turkey that was impossible to ignore. For although Greece woke up to a tragedy yesterday, its people also realised that they had been lucky; lucky that, at 5.9 on the Richter scale, the quake had not been as powerful as the 7.4 tremor that hit their neighbour; and lucky that, since the 1981 earthquake, buildings had been constructed to strict standards.

Even as the death toll topped 60, the evidence of Greece's good fortune was there to see in the area around Metamorfosi and Menidi. Homes and factories built before 1981 had buckled and collapsed, but most of those built afterwards were unscathed. The destruction and damage - to an estimated 200 buildings - appeared arbitrary until one inquired of their owners when they were built.

Most of the dead and missing were caught in old factories when the quake struck, at 3pm local time. The worst casualties were at Ricomex in Menidi, a cleaning products factory, where four bodies were recovered, six people were rescued and 30 were still missing; Fourlis, an electrical appliances company near Metamorfosi, where three died, seven were rescued and eight were missing; and Faran SA, a pharmaceuticals plant in Kifissia, where three people died, four were missing and eight were brought out alive.

"I think people will be asking questions about the construction of this building," said Lt Nikolas Sakkalis of the Athens fire brigade, standing outside the Faran factory, a third of which had collapsed, trapping workers between two floors. "But things could have been much worse. We learnt a lot after the '81 quake. Now our buildings are made to withstand this sort of shock."

Around the corner, in Naufpliou Street, number 52, was still standing, but only just. When the quake hit, Florou Teta, 39, her three children and a nephew had been inside.

"At first, I just thought, `Oh well, an earthquake', but it built up harder and harder, first this way, and then that until the walls and ceiling were collapsing around us," said Mrs Teta. "I thought we were going to die. The two balconies above us began to buckle and the house began sinking - and then it just stopped.

"We couldn't get out because the door was below the floor, but there was a hole in the wall and we climbed through. It made me realise that everything you have worked for, all your children, your whole life, everything could be gone in 30 seconds. The house was only built 15 years ago - it shouldn't have fallen apart, but I don't give a damn. We're just lucky to be alive."

Near by, in Megalopolous Street, most houses were unscathed or simply cracked. Yet one had folded, killing a 60-year-old woman and trapping her husband. While rescuers drilled and dug their way into the rubble, neighbours collected suits and dresses from the debris, in the hope that there would be someone left inside who would thank them for their efforts. Within hours, however, the husband, too, was found dead.

All around, thousands of people who had slept outdoors, fearing more shocks, watched the rescue operation from tents and sleeping bags laid out in parks and on wasteground. "Our house is fine," said one elderly man, brewing coffee on a camping stove. "But we aren't taking any chances."

At the Ricomex factory, where Spiros's girlfriend worked, friends and families of the trapped employees arrived in panic, to cry to comfort one another. We took Spiros on the last two miles of his long journey while he talked and chain-smoked, convincing himself that Bigi would be all right.

The sight that greeted him stopped him dead in his tracks. The factory had been built on a 30-degree incline with two floors above ground, two floors below. Now it had sunk into a huge crater. The only part still standing was its staircase, but even the stairs had yielded, lying flush with its remaining wall like a jagged tapestry.

Bigi's friend, Angela Kakliou, ran to comfort the young soldier, who had begun to cry. "There were too many people in there," she said. "And the building was old. It has collapsed completely."

As the day wore on, there were welcome arrivals, notably Turkish volunteers with listening equipment, fresh from their own crisis. "We are not a professional service or from the government - we are just volunteers," said their leader, Iskender Igdir, aged 31, from Istanbul. "The Greek people helped us and now we want to help them. These tragedies have brought our peoples closer together."

Then came a Swiss contingent and a French team with sniffer dogs. But nothing seemed to lift the spirits of those who waited. They wailed or stared vacantly at the rubble, wanting desperately to believe the impossible - that anyone could have survived.

By late afternoon the Turkish rescuers could hear three women alive and the dogs had found two more, but they were still far out of reach. Periodically, a cry would go out for silence and the assembled throng, the machinery - even the dogs - would fall silent as a listening rod, like an umbilical cord, was lowered into a hole.

Then the work would go on, leaving Spiros - and the rest of us - to wonder who was alive down there and who was dead.