Baby is pulled out alive but officials fear up to 40,000 may have perished

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The Independent Online

International rescue workers joined local Iranians yesterday scrabbling through the debris, sometimes with their bare hands, to reach survivors of the earthquake at Bam.

International rescue workers joined local Iranians yesterday scrabbling through the debris, sometimes with their bare hands, to reach survivors of the earthquake at Bam.

About 150 people, including a baby less than one-year-old, were pulled out alive after more than 24 hours in the rubble. But many were still pinned under the ruins of the shattered city of 80,000, their chances of survival ebbing away with every passing hour.

For those who have survived uninjured, the biggest risks are disease and the freezing nights.

Abdolvahed Mussavi-Lari, the Interior Minister, said the hordes of homeless survivors should be in tents by nightfall yesterday. But as evening arrived, many people were bedding down in the open among the palm groves around the ruined town with temperatures expected to drop to freezing point.

But all eyes and thoughts are with those who may still be buried alive. A Swiss rescue team was among the first on the scene yesterday with sniffer dogs to help relatives locate survivors from the earthquake, which registered 6.7 on the Richter scale.

British rescue experts were also at the head of those offering aid. Graham Payne, the director of Rapid-UK, said his 20-strong volunteer team arrived at Bam yesterday around midday and were conscious of the risk of disease from the dead and aftershocks. He said: "It's a horrendous scene. Up to half the city's population is dead, including many of the fire and ambulance workers. Most of the emergency equipment has also been destroyed, so there is no infrastructure and no relief centre set up. It is very hard for the rescuers to know where to begin."

The team of recovery experts and dogs from Rapid-UK began to scour rubble from two hospitals and larger blocks of flats flattened by the quake. Mr Payne said the team was optimistic about finding survivors.

"The weather is not too bad, so if anyone is found trapped there is a good chance we will get them out," he said. The crews planned to use snake-eye cameras, high-tech listening devices and carbon dioxide detectors.

The quake, which hit early on Friday morning, flattened an estimated 80 per cent of the city in south-east Iran, killing tens of thousands and leaving many others homeless or trapped under rubble.

The leader of an Iranian Red Crescent relief team, Ahmad Najafi, said he feared the toll could reach to more than 40,000. He said that in one street alone in Bam yesterday, 200 bodies had been extracted in a single hour.

In another part of the city, a grey-bearded man in his 50s, wearing the white turban common to rural villages in this corner of Iran, watched with resignation as four men dug with their bare hands and a single shovel.

What had once been his home was a flattened pile of rubble and dust. He pointed to where the bedrooms should have been, seemingly resigned that none of his three teenage children or his wife would be found alive.

Suddenly, a slender hand was spotted protruding from a red pyjama sleeve. "My Atefah's hand!" he cried, before he fainted. Other helpers caught him before he fell to the ground.

Behind him, the body of a girl in her teens was excavated and quickly covered with a blanket. Then the bodies of his sons and a woman in her 40s were found. No one was alive. No one who had helped uncover them knew their names.

A Briton was also among those missing in the ruins of the ancient city, according to officials from the British embassy in Tehran. A second Briton was slightly hurt in the disaster, but is now recovering in hospital.

Officials have not released the name, age or sex of any of the British nationals caught up in the disaster. Twenty-eight British tourists in the region escaped unharmed. One group of around 16 tourists travelling with tour operator Explore Worldwide visited Bam on Christmas Day and felt the earthquake as they travelled to Kerman, 125 miles from the quake's epicentre.

Sue Ockwell, a spokeswoman for the tour operator, said: "It was a very close call as far as they are all concerned but the tour leader ensured that everyone phoned home to let relatives know they were safe."

Ms Ockwell added that she believed the other tour, which was in Bam at the time of the earthquake, was organised by Exodus Travel.

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