Eight days after the quake, an abandoned three-year-old girl is pulled from her home

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Eight days after a killer earthquake convulsed the Himalayan valleys of Kashmir, a three-year-old girl was pulled alive from the soggy, splintered wreckage of her house after her brothers managed to get help.

Against all odds, the orphans were reunited by Pakistani soldiers yesterday, a minor miracle after a calamity that has destroyed close to 40,000 lives.

The two young brothers led soldiers to their flattened family home in Sanger, a village near the devastated hill town of Balakot, where their little sister lay pinned under the collapsed wooden slats. She suffers from polio and was unable to wriggle free. With their seven-month-old sister bundled in their arms, the boys had hiked over treacherous slopes that were still juddering with aftershocks to plead for help from a makeshift tented army hospital at Balakot. They arrived Saturday, a week after the tremors struck, and begged the soldiers to take them back.

Major General Shaukat Sultan, an army spokesman, praised the boys, aged seven and nine, for their bravery. "They're the real heroes," he said. "They said their house is destroyed, their parents are dead and nobody is alive in their locality." Medical examiners said their sister "was absolutely fine", he added.

The army has temporary quarters for orphans at their main base in Abbotabad and the siblings will be kept together.

Thunderstorms and fierce winds grounded many air rescue missions yesterday and international search teams had already started packing up their gear to return home. Last week, sniffer dogs had located scores of victims under the rubble of schools, houses, mosques and shops in the towns, but it took time for the dogs to be flown by helicopter to the most remote hamlets.

For the past week, teams using jackhammers, listening devices, carbon dioxide detectors and infra-red cameras, have managed to pull victims free from mounds of shattered masonry. Poignant stories have emerged, such as the two teachers in Muzafarrabad who had sacrificed their lives by shielding pupils from falling roofs with their bodies. Elsewhere, a living baby was wrenched from his dead mother's arms. One young mother, trapped alive under the Margalla Towers in Islamabad, had fed two children with her breast milk while lying buried 10 floors under the toppled building.