Cairo digs, mourns and waits in fear

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The Independent Online
IN THE Cairo dust, the collapsed 15-storey building looked like a giant bonfire as rescue workers crawled over its mangled girders. Thousands had gathered in a respectful, shocked silence - waiting for another body or another life to emerge. The first bodies recovered in this wreckage were of a mother and her baby - 22 followed and many more are yet to be found.

Eerily, lines of pristine white- clad soldiers practised drill beside the crawling bulldozers in anticipation of a visit from Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak.

Sherief Atef, a 17-year-old student, said he had already seen his 19-year-old cousin dragged from the wreckage. 'We think she was in the fast-food store in the building - she always went there at that time.'

It was thought 120 might have died in this building in the suburb of Heliopolis, when the earthquake, measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale, rumbled and then roared its way through Cairo's seething streets at 3pm on Monday - the busiest time of the day.

The estimated death toll rose yesterday to 1,000. But in a city of 12 million people, growing by the day, nobody could be sure.

'Nobody could know how many were in the fast-food store. Maybe 10, maybe 20. And the launderette and the bookshop as well. At this time of day they were all packed,' said Sherief, speaking over the sound of the diggers.

But despite the devastation in concentrated pockets, most of Cairo appeared surprisingly unaffected by the earthquake. By yesterday evening traffic was beginning to move freely through the city and electricity was restored even to areas close to the destruction. Even in parts of old Cairo where many of the buildings collapsed, street life appeared to be teeming as usual with traders spilling out on to the streets.

On the edge of the city there was little sign at all that the earthquake had had serious effects.

But amid fearful rumour and counter-rumour about the risk of further earthquakes, many people last night were sitting outside their homes or walking the streets.

Mona Mohamed was sitting cross-legged across the street from the collapsed building, smiling and staring. At 3pm yesterday she, like everyone else, had expected a further quake, predicted on television. It did not happen.

Explaining what the tremor had been like, she waved her hands from side to side. Many make the same gesture and talk of shifting sand under the feet.

Sameh Farouk said: 'It was like the ground was suddenly swimming around beneath us; then there was the rumble and the dust everywhere. My mother and sister had been walking that way just minutes earlier. I rushed out to find them and just saw the swirling dust.'

People also talked of swinging lamps, swaying buildings and then the sudden panic. 'People were in the streets everywhere - some half-dressed, just screaming. People jumped out of the building - many were injured or died that way in the first few minutes,' said Alexandra Buccianti, who lives near the flattened area.

Witnesses say people swiftly recovered from their panic and rushed to help others. One said: 'The rescue workers could not get through; the streets were jammed. Injured people lay on the road. But people helped each other, walking with the injured and the dead on their shoulders towards the hospital.'

Throughout the city, crammed buildings, illegally extended to house the growing millions, fell in seconds. In the Dahed area near the railway station, in Boulek on the Nile and well out into the city's suburbs, the buildings fell. In Shubra al-Kheima as many as 40 children were killed in the panic to escape their collapsing school.

In a mosque in the north of the city, 10 were killed an hour after the tremor while giving thanks for being saved, when the building suddenly collapsed.