'An unbelievable human disaster has occurred'

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The Independent Online

The scale of the Iranian earthquake tragedy is so vast that a reliable death toll is impossible. The Interior Ministry today estimated that 20,000 had died but two leading rescue officials said the final toll in the historic town of Bam could be double that figure.

"As more bodies are pulled out, we fear that the death toll may reach as high as 40,000. An unbelievable human disaster has occurred," said Akbar Alavi, the governor of Kerman, the provincial capital.

The leader of a relief team, Ahmad Najafi, endorsed the 40,000 estimate, saying that in one street alone, 200 bodies had been extracted from the rubble in one hour today.

One man. with tears rolling down his face, interrupted Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari as he spoke to reporters: "My father is under the rubble. I've been asking for help since yesterday, but nobody has come to help me. Please help me. I want my father alive."

Mr Lari stressed to reporters that the death toll issued by his ministry was "only an estimate."

"There is not a standing building in the city. Bam has turned into a wasteland. Even if a few buildings are standing, you cannot trust to live in them," he said.

Workers dug with shovels and bare hands to extricate bodies and possible survivors from the remains of flattened buildings in a town which had a population of 80,000 before the earthquake.

Swiss and German rescue teams arrived with sniffer dogs. Until then, the authorities had used only a few drug-sniffing dogs to look for possible survivors. Tens of thousands were injured by the earthquake, which measured 6.3 on the Richter scale.

Reza Jordani was in shock as he sat at the bedside of his 10-year-old son who was badly injured in the earthquake.

"I don't know what has happened to the rest of my family," said Mr Jordani, a middle-aged soldier, whose entire street was swallowed up by the earthquake. Somehow, he was able to drag his son Adil out from under bricks and rubble and drive the 120 miles to Kerman. Adil, his shirt still covered in blood, now shares a hospital room with six or seven other children.

Bam was a peaceful oasis town sitting tight against the deserts that fringe eastern and southern Iran, about 600 miles south-east of Tehran. The earthquake smashed the sprawling old town and the deserted medieval fortress, which sits atop a cliff above the city. The towers and domes had formed part of a stunning picture that could have been straight out of The Arabian Nights.

Two hospitals were among the buildings that collapsed in seconds, crushing hospital staff and focusing medical efforts on nearby towns. The injured, many in critical condition, were being flown out of Bam for treatment as the emergency relief effort got under way within hours of the quake. A nurse in Kerman said that 2,000 people were packed into the hospital which had 600 beds. People arriving from the quake zone were being sent away to other cities.

A series of aftershocks were felt throughout the day across Kerman and in the neighbouring province of Khuzestan. Telephone links to Bam were severed, and water and electricity services collapsed. In one street in Bam, only a wall and the trees were left standing. People could be seen carrying away the injured, while others sat sobbing next to the corpses of their loved ones. The streets were quickly choked with ambulances and people desperate to find family members. Squares were packed with crying children and people left without a home, huddled in blankets to protect them from the cold.

Corpses shrouded in blankets were hauled into vans. One old woman, disconsolate with grief, smeared her face with dirt, only able to utter: "My child, my child."

"There is nothing but devastation and debris," said Mohammed Karimi, who spoke as he held his four-year-old daughter dead in his arms. "Trucks are hauling bodies to bury them in mass graves."

Iranian authorities, with a grim experience of dealing with the aftermath of deadly tremors in the quake-prone region, were swift to mobilise rescue operations.

"Our immediate two priorities are dealing with the people who are trapped and transferring the wounded to other areas," the Interior Minister said. President Mohamed Khatami declared a three-day mourning period, calling the quake a "national tragedy".

There were chaotic scenes as rescuers poured into the city to search for survivors, while other inhabitants attempted to flee the city. About 500 people were evacuated to hospitals in Kerman which has become the focal point of the relief effort, led by the Iranian Red Crescent Society.

Temporary camps have been set up to provide basic accommodation for the homeless. The government issued an immediate plea for blood donations and centres have been set up across the country. In the streets of Kerman, local checkpoints were set up by mosques and the non-governmental relief committee to collect donations from citizens.

The points are being inundated with gifts of blankets, food and clothes. One man in charge of a central checkpoint said trucks were leaving every 10 minutes to take the gifts to a central point from where they would be taken to Bam, nearly three hours distant.

The Red Crescent has sent 250 relief workers to the province along with two helicopters, ambulances and other vehicles.

The organisation has provided 5,000 tents as well as medical equipment, food, blankets and sniffer-dogs to search through the rubble."The immediate priority is the search and rescue phase ­ ensuring that survivors are located, given medical attention and transferred to hospital," said an IRCS representative, Mostafa Mohaghegh.

Condolences and offers of help poured in from abroad, including from the Bush administration which had labelled Iran part of the "axis of evil".

"We are offering humanitarian assistance," President Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, told reporters. "This is a terrible tragedy," he said. The European Union announced it was earmarking about ¤800,000 (£560,000) in emergency assistance for Iran. Britain is sending two search and rescue teams to Iran, after the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw telephoned his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi to offer condolences.

Some governments such as Belgium, preferred to send donations directly to the Iranian Red Crescent.

As relatives sought news, there were scenes of anguish and frustration at Tehran airport when Iranians attempted to board flights to the stricken area. "Seventeen of my family are dead. Please let me on," one man shouted tearfully.

Some survivors built bonfires in the rubble-strewn streets to stay warm as temperatures dropped. Most sat shivering in their night clothes in the winter cold, because all their possessions were buried in their homes. As night fell, there were unconfirmed reports of looting and sporadic outbreaks of violence in Bam.

Earthquakes are common in Iran and kill thousands ­ each time in a different part of the country. Amazingly, hardly any buildings in Iran are built to withstand quakes, as yesterday demonstrated once again.

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