- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2003

BAM, Iran — Overwhelmed relief crews picked through rubble searching for survivors or bodies yesterday, a day after an early-morning earthquake killed perhaps tens of thousands of people and devastated much of this ancient city in southeastern Iran.

One American was killed and another injured as they visited the city’s 2,000-year-old citadel, a U.S. State Department spokesman said in Washington. The injured American was hospitalized in Tehran, the spokesman said. The victims’ names were not released.

As help began arriving from around the world, the scope of the disaster was so vast that a precise death toll was not available and may never be. The Interior Ministry estimated 20,000 dead, but two leading rescue officials said the number could be twice as high.

More than 30,000 people were injured, the ministry said.

The earthquake, which struck at 5:28 a.m. Friday, was measured at a preliminary magnitude of 6.3 by Iranian authorities and 6.5 by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Colorado. The city is about 630 miles southeast of Tehran, not far from Iran’s border with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“As more bodies are pulled out, we fear that the death toll may reach as high as 40,000. An unbelievable human disaster has occurred,” said Akbar Alavi, the mayor of Kerman, the provincial capital.

Bam suffered such extreme damage because most of its buildings are made of unreinforced mud brick and the quake was centered only about 10 miles outside the city, said Harley Benz, a USGS seismologist.

“The communities in this part of Iran are really not resilient to earthquakes,” said Mr. Benz, head of the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo. “It’s very sad and unfortunate.”

Aftershocks shook Bam yesterday, including one that registered a magnitude 5.3, sending panic through the city. Rescue workers in Bam pulled 150 survivors from the rubble yesterday, said Masoud Amiri, an officer with the Revolutionary Guards. The survivors included a baby, who was listed in stable condition.

A provincial government official, Saeed Iranmanesh, said 3,000 bodies had been recovered and buried and more than 9,000 of the injured were sent to hospitals throughout the country.

The leader of a relief team, Ahmad Najafi, endorsed the 40,000 estimated death toll, saying rescuers pulled 200 bodies from one street in an hour.

“My father is under the rubble,” one man said to Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari, interrupting a news conference. “I’ve been asking for help since yesterday, but nobody has come to help me. Please help me. I want my father alive.”

Mr. Lari directed an aide to make sure the man got help.

The minister also emphasized that the official projected death toll in the city of 80,000 was only an estimate.

“There is not a standing building in the city,” he said. “Bam has turned into a wasteland. Even if a few buildings are standing, you cannot trust to live in them.”

The quake largely destroyed the city’s best-known structure, the citadel. The tallest section of the ancient mud fortress crumbled like a sand castle.

Throughout the city, rescue workers and relatives of the missing dug with shovels and bare hands to extricate bodies or survivors from flattened buildings.

Nations dispatched search teams and other assistance or promised to send help. Rescue teams from Switzerland, Britain, Germany, Russia and elsewhere arrived with equipment and dogs trained to search for survivors amid the rubble.

In Geneva, the International Red Cross issued a preliminary appeal for $12.3 million to help bring relief assistance to the quake zone, reporting that an estimated 50,000 people were left homeless.

President Bush offered assistance. The U.S. Agency for International Development dispatched a search-and-rescue team from Fairfax, along with a specially trained squad of 70 California firefighters.

“We greatly welcome any assistance from the United States. We welcome assistance from all countries except Israel,” Mr. Lari said.

Iran’s government opened its airspace to all planes carrying aid or relief workers. It also waived visa requirements for foreign relief personnel.

There were scenes of grief throughout Bam.

A man with a white turban and graying beard fainted as he spotted the hand of his teenage daughter in the rubble of his home. Friends helped remove the body of the girl, along with those of the man’s wife and two sons, from the debris.

Thousands of people spent Friday night outdoors, sleeping under blankets in temperatures close to the freezing point. Hundreds slept in tents erected by relief workers.

In a cemetery, workers prepared a mass grave that already held 20 corpses. Nearby, a cleric and 10 relatives said prayers over another grave.

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