A motorbike trip from Nepal to Turkey that ended in tragedy at a guesthouse amid the palm groves of Bam

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The Independent Online

"We had a lovely time on Christmas day," a distraught Akbar Panjalizadeh recalled yesterday. "There were many people in the hostel and we all sat around and ate together. Two Belgians played a musical instrument."

Later the guesthouse owner sat up and swapped travel stories with Gavin Sexton, who was soon to become the only known British victim of Bam's earthquake, which claimed up to 30,000 lives on Boxing Day.

Yesterday, while mourning the death of his own son in the rubble of his guesthouse, Mr Panjalizadeh had a vivid recollection of his conversation with Mr Sexton, who asked him about earthquakes in the area. Later his British guest pointed out that the fact that the ancient mud fortress of Bam had survived for centuries showed they were safe.

"I think he felt it," said Mr Panjalizadeh. "He was talking all about the earthquake. I asked him, 'Gavin why are you talking about earthquakes?' He replied, 'Akbar, a man does not die twice'."

Sitting in the ruins of his guesthouse in downtown Bam, Mr Panjalizadeh said:"I saved seven people from here - If only I could have saved Gavin I would have been happy. He was such a nice man. Such a friendly man."

In another coincidence, it emerged that Mr Sexton, 36, was a colleague of members of the British search and rescue team dispatched to the city. He was a member of the Hampshire fire brigade, to which many of the team belonged.

Another British woman was staying in the same hostel. She and her German travelling companion escaped with light injuries and helped pull other travellers from the rubble.

Amid all the tragedy there was a miracle of sorts yesterday when the Iranian Red Crescent Society discovered a baby girl still alive in her dead mother's embrace. The six-month-old's survival, deep in the rubble, has astounded rescuers. Locals said she was found 72 hours after the quake, but rescue officials and state television later said she had been found after 37 hours.

"She is alive because of her mother's embrace," said Hessamoddin Farrokhyar, of the Red Crescent. It was not clear how she survived without food or water. Temperatures at night have been bitterly cold.

Yesterday, their search and rescue work done, eight members of the British team came to salvage Mr Sexton's personal effects for his family.

The roof had completely collapsed and another body still lay under the debris. After an hour's work, a heavy rucksack was pulled from underneath the bed and its contents examined. Clothes, books and a minidisc player were found as well as a camera. One of the workers moved away from the group, quietly weeping.

"I was Gavin's station commander for 12 years," said Peter Crook, the search and rescue team leader. "When we arrived we knew there was a British death and heard rumours he was a fireman. But we had no idea it was somebody we knew. It is uncanny."

A keen traveller and motorcyclist, Mr Sexton was halfway through a year's leave from the service to drive an old Enfield motorbike from Nepal to Turkey. Mr Crook said it was a trip he had frequently talked about. Mr Sexton reached the hostel on Wednesday afternoon and had planned to leave on Christmas Day after doing some repairs to his motorbike. According to Mr Panjalizadeh, he delayed his journey by a day because he liked this pretty town so much.

Even now, it is easy to see why travellers fell in love with the hostel. Lying on a pretty side street opposite a palm grove in downtown Bam, the building had a central room where people sat to chat. All that remains of the seating area today is a high pile of bricks, mud wall and plaster. A metal doorframe is decorated with stickers from across the world. "I love Korea" reads one; another is for FC Barcelona.

Bedrooms come off from the sides and another palm grove sits at the back. Mr Panjalizadeh points to a new extension he had nearly finished building. He says his guests had admired it and looked forward to sitting on the roof.

"I'm a retired schoolteacher," he says. "I was always travelling myself and this was my dream: to do for others as I expect them to do for me."

The dream collapsed with the rest of the city, extracting a terrible price. At the front of the building is a blue metal gate and half a pillar, with "Akbar Guesthouse" in neat block writing down the front. Inside, the debris is interspersed with furniture: parts of bedsteads and metal chairs point up from the rubble. From a half-standing wall further inside, the entire block can be seen. Not a single building in sight survived intact.

Mr Panjalizadeh wailed as he pointed to another room. "In this room my son died," he said. "I heard him screaming for help but I couldn't do anything. My wife and other children managed to get out. I keep looking for my neighbours but I don't find them."

Only memories are left. He built his guesthouse eight years ago and it soon became one of the most popular in the city. "Please convey my message to the world," he said, his gentle face breaking into tears. "Please pay me a visit. Even if I have one or two tents across the street, people can still come and stay."

Although there were many other guests at the hotel, only one other was confirmed dead. An American member of a visiting tour group was pulled from the rubble badly bleeding and died in hospital in Kerman.

Like most survivors, those from the guesthouse were pulled out during the night. Now the international rescue teams have almost entirely given up hope. One of the British team members said that although they have found people alive in the past up to five days after an earthquake, the chances of survival are now almost nil.

"We made the decision this morning that we would not find survivors and that's why we decided to come and salvage Gavin's things," said Mr Crook.

On the way from the main international rescue camp in Bam to the guesthouse - the team wearing orange overalls and hard hats and still carrying their sonic-detection and rescue equipment - people waved, shouting their greetings and thanks. Others rushed up desperately hoping for medical attention or other help.

"People have been very friendly," says Mr Crook. "They stop us and give fruit or water. In other countries, we've had some bad experiences, but not here. Even when we have to tell people there is nobody left alive under a building, they have understood and have not made problems for us."

Close to the hostel, a man approached and said moaning had been heard from under the debris the night before - could the team help? They followed the man down a rubble-strewn alleyway. A large group of volunteers were standing atop a high pile of bricks.

The team moved up, took out their equipment and settled down to listen. Suddenly, another tremor shook the earth. Faces tensed up in fear at the possibility of another deadly quake. "Nothing to worry about," said one of the team. "Just a small aftershock."

Everybody was cleared from the site and silence demanded. Workers and volunteers, spades in hand, stood completely still at the bottom of the pile. For minutes, the only sounds came from far away: distant vehicles, distant rubble-clearing and distant voices.

Six farmers from nearby villages looked on. With bright turbans wrapped around their heads and the dark hard faces of the desert, they put their hands to their hearts and shook their heads in sorrow. They had all lost homes and family members and wanted to show their gratitude to the international rescue effort. As members of the rescue team begged for silence, two of them rushed down alleyways to quieten those who had not seen what was happening.

Under the rubble of this house are a newly married couple - Layla and Hassan. Their uncle had heard moans from a stairwell. A small red electronic ear is suspended through one hole after another, while the uncle shouts down for survivors to tap or scratch.

Nothing is heard, and after 20 minutes the team conclude that nobody is left alive. Sadly, that has been the norm. None of the specialised teams have yet recovered survivors. Now it is almost certainly too late. As Bam prepares to enter its fifth day of the post-earthquake era, attention turns to the living. Food, medicine and shelter now take precedence over search and rescue in the fight to keep the living alive.