Brick by brick, body by body, the full horror of Bam emerges

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"This was the house where my daughter lived," said Maryam, a middle-aged woman adrift in the sea of rubble that was Bam. On a white bedstead behind her were four blanketed shapes: the bodies of her daughter and three grandchildren.

Only one old man was pulled out of the house alive. "I live elsewhere, but I came to visit my only son. Now he is dead," he said, bursting into sharp wails of grief.

Twenty-four hours after the earthquake struck, the stillness of death hung over Bam yesterday. As Iranian officials talked of the toll reaching 40,000, the world was mobilising to help, with the scale of the disaster overcoming international suspicion. President George Bush said: "The thoughts of all Americans are with the victims and their families at this time, and we stand ready to help the people of Iran." For its part, Tehran said it would accept aid from any country except Israel.

International rescuers with sniffer dogs began arriving in Bam during the day after landing at Kerman, the provincial capital. But at dawn yesterday, only the Iranian Red Crescent and small teams of soldiers and Islamic militiamen were working with spades and pickaxes to search the rubble for survivors. Hope glimmered when an old lady was pulled out. However, the winter nights in Kerman province are bitterly cold, and many will not survive.

Bodies wrapped in blankets or polythene sheets lay in twos or threes along the streets and back alleys of the town. I saw a car driving slowly across a roundabout, the bare feet of a corpse pointing stiffly from the open boot. Almost every house in the centre had been razed. To the north the historic clay citadel of Arg-e Bam that had defined the pretty oasis city for 2,000 years was completely destroyed, its domes shattered.

"Hossein, Hossein, Hossein," screamed a hysterical man standing in a cluster of family members, sobbing and crying over their dead. They were so overcome with grief that the bodies lay uncovered all around them in the street. Another man, wrapped in a blanket, beat his head and wailed, pointing to the shrouded figures of his wife and child at his feet.

As keening rose through the mists of dawn, the faces of citizens registered numbing shock. Small groups huddled around fires or picked through the rubble that was their homes. Others sought to escape the hellish new world they had woken up to: I saw a woman dressed in bright red and yellow garments singing to herself and dancing in circles in the road.

The scale of the devastation was terrifying. Entire streets had been flattened, leaving an endless expanse of rubble. Many roads were blocked. The bottom half of a gateway was all that remained of a mosque, its glazed blue tiles sparkling against the grey dust of the ruins. Amid the destruction were images of calm: a plastic flower hung forlornly on the only surviving wall of a house. In another ruin stood a large metal bookcase, a little dusty but undamaged. Many of the city's small palm groves remained miraculously intact between piles of dust and debris. Some even had goats grazing beneath roofs of green fronds.

It was not difficult to imagine how attractive this little city had been less than 48 hours earlier, with mud and brick houses softened by irrigated gardens, and streets lined with eucalyptus and orange trees. "This was such a beautiful town," said a tearful volunteer. "But now look: it is 100 per cent destroyed."

The only working mechanical digger I saw was dangerous: its brakes did not work, and a man ran ahead clearing traffic.

"The biggest problem we have is getting people out from the rubble," said a doctor at an emergency medical relief tent. "We just don't have enough aid workers." A local volunteer said it would take months to recover all the bodies of the dead.

Bam's two hospitals were destroyed in the quake, killing many of the city's medical personnel. The doctor said the injured were no longer being taken by road to Kerman, the nearest major town, 60 miles away. Now they were driven to the airport and flown by plane or Chinook helicopter to Yazd, Shiraz and even Tehran.

The route between Kerman and Bam was jammed with traffic as the relief operation gained momentum and local people flocked to help search for survivors. Food, water and heating were the main needs of the distraught survivors of Bam, but they were still fixated on the dead.

Maryam looked numbly at her three surviving relatives. "We don't need money," she said. "What we need is for them to come and take away our dead children."