2,000 feared dead in quake that hit sleeping oil-town


of Reuters

Neftegorsk - As many as 2,000 people were feared dead after a powerful earthquake flattened this town in Russia's Far East, crushing people in buildings as they slept.The full toll will not be known for at least a week.

"I recognised my mother by her dress and my brother by his long underwear," said Irya Golovchinka, 17, sitting by a campfire beside the long, straight piles of ruins. The concrete rubble, illuminated by rescue workers' floodlights, is all that remains of the 19 blocks of flats which made up Neftogorsk, a small oil town on the island of Sakhalin.

The ground still trembles from time to time as Irya tries to remember the earthquake which orphaned her and her 14-year-old brother Sasha early on Sunday morning. "I did not hear anything," Irya said. "I just felt air beneath my feet and then I fell.

"I managed to drag myself out, but my mother and father were buried. My mother was unrecognisable. She was burnt," she said, tears breaking through for the first time.

Irya, Sasha and their friend 16-year-old Lena Russkikh, sleep in piles of blankets and anoraks near a fire which does little to keep off the cold night wind. They still seem to be in shock from the tragedy which struck their town and talk about the deaths and disappearances, for the most part, in a matter-of-fact way.

"I am going to stay here until they pull my parents out, alive or dead," said Lena, who was visiting a friend in another block when the quake struck. "When it started I thought 'Wow, an earthquake', then a slab fell on my head and then a door and then I was trapped.

" My friend Olga died," she said. "I lay there for ages. All around there were people crying out 'help' and 'save me' and then I heard the helicopters. I shouted out and they came and pulled me out."

There were 28 pupils in Irya's class. "Nine or 10 of them are in there," she said, pointing at the piles of rubble where rescue workers are still at work, pulling out bodies and shouting at those still alive underneath.

"My husband, my children, my grandchildren are still inside there," wailed one elderly woman with heavily bandaged hands. "I will wait here until they bring them out, whether they are dead or alive."

A crane lifted a slab of concrete to reveal a couple lying in bed. They must have died instantly, because they looked as if they were asleep, apart from blood on their foreheads. Further down the same pile of rubble, a rescue worker threaded a length of rubber hose through broken concrete, twisted metal, and crushed belongings. "Take hold of the end and we will pour some water down," he shouted.

Almost 3,500 people lived in this windswept, sandy settlement in the north of Sakhalin, some 4,500 miles and eight time zones east of Moscow, on an island so remote and inhospitable it was used by the tsars as a place of exile. For two days helicopters have stirred up the sand on the streets as doctors, rescue workers and equipment arrive from as far as Moscow. "After Chernobyl and Armenia, this is the worst disaster the former Soviet Union has ever seen," said the Emergencies Minister, Sergei Shoigu. An earthquake in Armenia killed 25,000 people in 1988.

The Russian authorities launched a major disaster relief operation. Planes and helicopters were ferrying in food, clothing and medical supplies, but thick ice off Sakhalin meant that a hospital ship would not be able to get to the disaster site for four days. Both Japan, just south of Sakhalin, and South Korea offered to help, but Lieutenant-General Nikolai Loktyonov of the emergencies ministry said that Russia did not need aid. "We have 300 professional Russian rescue workers in the zone plus defence ministry specialists. There is no need for foreign rescuers to come to Sakhalin," he said.

Minister Shoigu said Seventies construction in Neftegorsk reflected the then prevalent belief that the region was not part of an earthquake zone. Homes built after 1972 were more strongly built, he said.

Altogether 55,000 people lived in the region in the remote north of Sakhalin island hit by the earthquake. But it was Neftegorsk, close to the epicentre, that took the brunt.