Rescue teams give up hope of finding earthquake survivors

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Aid workers sifting through the ruins of Iran's devastating earthquake switched from searching for survivors to treating the injured and homeless and burying corpses still being pulled from the rubble.

The death toll from Friday's 6.6-magnitude earthquake that shook the ancient city of Bam rose to 28,000, according to Ted Peran, coordinator of UN relief operations. At least 10,000 people were believed injured.

"We have gone out of the rescue phase and entered the humanitarian relief phase of the operation," Mr Peran said. "There's always hope of pulling more survivors out, but the window of opportunity is closing rapidly."

Some international rescuers headed home, saying they were frustrated at their inability to save lives. There were fears the number of dead could rise above 50,000.

"We did not find anyone alive," said Steve Owens of the charity British International Search, whose team spent 14 hours travelling less 125 miles on a jammed road to Bam and reached the devastated city too late to help.

"We were a day late getting to the site," Mr Owens said, waiting Tuesday at the airport in the provincial capital of Kerman for a flight back to England. "When things like this happen, there should be ways to get teams in quicker. It's frustrating."

Russia's Emergency Situations' Ministry said that its 150 rescuers would return to Moscow and that a plane carrying humanitarian aid would be sent to Iran on Wednesday.

At the peak of rescue efforts, 1,700 international relief workers from 30 countries had converged in Bam, Peran said. The number of rescuers has dropped to about 1,500 after seven teams returned home.

Meanwhile, new aid was arriving - including an American military plane carrying 80 personnel and medical supplies.

The American team, which reached Bam by midday, came despite long-severed diplomatic relations and US President George Bush's naming of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea. Seven US Air Force C-130 cargo planes had already been sent to the earthquake zone.

The United States and Iran's neighbors in the Gulf ranked among the largest contributors to the relief effort.

Six Gulf states today pledged $400 million to help reconstruct Bam, best known as the site of the world's largest medieval mud fortress, a 2,000-year-old citadel that crumbled in the quake.

Residents scavenged the rubble in search of belongings. One man extracted a pair of trousers and a bottle of water from the rocks where his house used to be, only one wall left standing upright behind him. He found nothing else.

At the cemetery, white shrouds were laid out, waiting for bodies as bulldozers dug more graves. Hundreds of people gathered, sobbing for loved ones. Three men crouched by one grave, crying as they covered a body's face with a piece of cloth.

Nearby, another man pulled photos out of a plastic bag and showed them to others nearby, who started praying with him. The photos included a young girl, about 6, two young boys and a black and white photo of an old man.

Akbar Hesomi, 55, sat on a pile of rubble and watched Iranian rescuers search for four of his relatives with bare hands and shovels in the rocks of what used to be a four-story building.

"My girls, my boys! My girls, my boys," he repeated over and over.