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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridgeface-off in the final
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
The Tesco Hudl2: An exceptional Android tablet that's powerful, well-built and outstanding value

Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas