Quake town's second vision of hell

Rescuers search for 1,600 still missing in the rubble of Neftegorsk, reports Richard Lloyd Parry
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Neftegorsk - The only reasonable way into Neftegorsk now is by helicopter: as you approach the town it is immediately obvious why. The northern part of Sakhalin is flat, so you can see the town from a long way off - a blurred grey break in the green forest underbelt.

It is only as the Aeroflot helicopter swings into land that the full picture becomes clear.

As a town, Neftegorsk is unrecognisable. It looks more like a city-sized building site or a vast municipal rubbish dump. A few two storey buildings - long , low, anonymous Soviet-style carbuncles - are visible, and the open spaces are lively with tents and prefabs and 20 different kinds of crane, tractor, digger and bulldozer.

But the core of the oil town, where 3,000 people lived until last Sunday, is gone. In its place are regular rows of piled grey rubble. It looks as if 20 jumbo jet-sized skips have been upended, then carefully arranged in neat lines.

As the helicopter descends, the Russian woman staring out of the porthole next to mine starts to scream and cry uncontrollably. She has to be helped off.

In the town square turned heliport, the first thing you come across are piles of coffins, roughly nailed together out of unplaned wood. They seem to be arranged in family groups: two large, one small, and one pathetically tiny.

There is much worse.

"I have seen Ceylon, which is paradise, and Sakhalin, which is hell," wrote Anton Chekhov following a visit he made in 1890. He was referring to tsarist convict camps. But since the earthquake Neftegorsk has been doing a pretty good imitation of the old days.

In a way the horror is intensified by being concentrated on a single town. Neighbouring settlements were shaken, windows and walls cracked but no lives were lost.

In Neftegorsk, 401 have been confirmed alive, and about 1,000 dead; The rest of the inhabitants are missing, presumed buried under tons of broken masonry.

The earthquake struck without warning, at 1am on Sunday. Most people were asleep. The young people of the town were at a disco in a recreation hall which collapsed on their heads, killing all but four.

Yevgeni Shulga, 26, was in his ground-floor kitchen, while his wife and child slept next door. "The first thing I heard was a great noise. Then I fell down, and the ceiling followed me, and the lights went out."

His legs were trapped beneath the broken walls of his apartment but he was still able to cry for help. Four hours later, rescuers dug him out. Four days later, his wife and child are still underneath there, along with his mother and father, sister and brother-in-law.

There were 19 of the five-storey blocks, each built to a Soviet standard and containing 64 flats. It is a wonder they lasted as long as they did. The uniform grey concrete blocks look brittle and brutally heavy.

"I saw these apartments being built in 1967," said Orehov Valeri, "and we all knew then that the materials were very poor. They were built like houses of cards but no one said anything because they were so much better than what we had before."

Mr Orehov spent 24 hours buried under his home, alongside his wife and seven-year-old daughter. They were able to talk to one another throughout, and all were rescued. But Mr Orehov's elder brother and family burnt to death in an identical block just round the corner.

There have been other miracles. Nearly five days on, survivors were still being taken alive from the wreckage. On Tuesday, a three-month-old baby emerged unharmed after two freezing nights and blazing days. But there is no comfort to be had in Neftegorsk.

The courtyard of the school has been converted into an undertaker's with an efficient production line. The victims are wrapped in whatever is to hand: rugs, blankets, sheets of plastic. Most are carefully covered, but once in a while the covering slips to reveal images that do not need to be described to be imagined.

The dead of Neftegorsk - if they did not freeze or suffocate in the succeeding hours - were crushed. Twelve doctors from the Moscow medical association have carried out 57 amputations.

You can spot survivors by the deep crimson bruises and raw abrasions where the rough angles of concrete pressed into them.

There are 1,500 rescue workers here, and the skies hum with helicopters bringing supplies, more rescuers and journalists from the nearest airport.

But the missing still outnumber the searchers and the choice of where to look is hit and miss.

Yesterday a woman said she heard groans coming from one towering mound. One hundred people spent a day dismantling it to find nobody there.

On Tuesday, a 52-year-old man was pulled out of the rubble - the town drunk, people say. He shook himself off, belted up his trousers, and looked around him. "Okay," he said, "Now I want to go home."

And the rescuers said: "This is your home."