- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

KERMAN, Iran — Entire blocks of buildings lay crushed and survivors lined up blanket-wrapped bodies in the street after a devastating earthquake leveled nearly three-quarters of the Iranian city of Bam yesterday, killing at least 5,000 people and injuring 30,000 others.

The quake also destroyed much of Bam’s historic landmark — a giant medieval fortress complex of towers, domes and walls, all made of mud-brick, overlooking a walled Old City, parts of which date back 2,000 years. Television images showed the highest part of the fort — including its distinctive square tower — crumbled like a sand castle down the side of the hill, though some walls still stood.

Local officials said the death toll could reach 12,000, though the deputy governor of Kerman province, Muhammad Farshad, said an accurate count was impossible with many victims still trapped under the rubble. “Rescue operations are going slowly because of darkness,” he said.

“The disaster is far too huge for us to meet all of our needs,” President Mohammed Khatami said. “However, all the institutions have been mobilized.”

The government asked for international assistance, particularly search-and-rescue teams. The United States promised to send aid, as did numerous European nations.

“This is a terrible tragedy,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said while briefing reporters aboard Air Force One.

In a statement issued later, President Bush said he was “greatly saddened” by the earthquake. “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.”

Mr. Bush had not spoken to any Iranian leaders, and it was not immediately clear whether any aid discussions would be carried out through an intermediary organization or a third country, Mr. McClellan said. The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

By nightfall yesterday, little outside relief was seen in Bam, a city of 80,000 people in southeastern Iran. With temperatures dropping to 21 degrees, survivors built bonfires in the rubble-strewn streets to keep warm, many shivering in their nightclothes, the only clothes they had since the pre-dawn quake.

With hospitals in the area destroyed, military transport planes had to evacuate many of the injured for treatment to the provincial capital, Kerman, and elsewhere. At least four C-130s had ferried out injured so far, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari told Iranian television, which put the number of injured at 30,000. Kerman’s governor, Muhammad Ali Karimi, said the preliminary estimate of the death toll was 5,000 to 6,000, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

At Bam’s only cemetery, a crowd of about 1,000 people wailed and beat their chests and heads over some 500 corpses that lay on the ground as a bulldozer dug a trench for a mass grave.

“This is the apocalypse. There is nothing but devastation and debris,” Muhammad Karimi, in his 30s, said at the cemetery, where he had brought the bodies of his wife and 4-year-old daughter.

The quake struck at 5:28 a.m., while many were asleep. IRNA put the preliminary magnitude at 6.3; the U.S. Geological Survey measured it at 6.5. Survivors were panicked throughout the day by aftershocks, including one that registered a magnitude of 5.3, according to the geophysics institute of Tehran University.

The interior minister said 70 percent of residential Bam had been destroyed, and there was no electricity, water or telephone lines. Iran’s Red Crescent, the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross, said rescue and relief teams had been sent to Bam from numerous provinces, including Tehran.

Iranian television showed entire neighborhoods collapsed. On one street, only a wall and the trees were standing. People carried away injured, while others sat sobbing next to the blanket-covered corpses of their loved ones. One man held his head in his hands and wailed.

The quake’s epicenter was outside Bam, and nearby villages were also damaged in the region, which is home to about 230,000 people and lies about 630 miles southeast of Tehran.

In Iran, quakes of more than magnitude 5 usually kill people because most buildings are not built to withstand earthquakes, although the country sits on several major fault lines and temblors are frequent. Iran has a history of earthquakes that kill thousands of people, including one of magnitude 7.3 that killed about 50,000 people in northwest Iran in 1990.

Mr. Karimi, the governor, said the historic section of Bam, which was unoccupied, was 80 percent demolished in the quake.

The United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO, asked Iran to send a team of experts to the fortress, which has been under consideration for the agency’s list of protected World Heritage Sites. “The site of Bam is considered one of the very, very important sites of mud-brick architecture,” said Mounir Bouchenaki, a UNESCO heritage specialist.

Parts of the Old City — once an important stop on the Silk Road through Asia — date back 2,000 years, though most of the structures were built in the 15th to 18th centuries.

Mr. Khatami declared three days of mourning. “God willing, we will try even harder to meet your needs,” he said in a phone call to Kerman’s governor that was aired on television.

Shocked Iranians mobilized to help. In Tehran, volunteers jammed a blood-donation center. In Fars province, neighboring Kerman, the government asked for donations of blankets and food and for volunteers to head to Bam to help in relief work.

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