- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

BAM, Iran — Hopes of finding more earthquake survivors faded yesterday as rescue workers were faced with the realization that the mud-brick houses became instant tombs for more than 20,000 people.

Rescue help from around the world joined Iranians in the search through powdery debris that left little room for air pockets allowing people to survive while awaiting help.

More than 20,000 bodies, including one American killed while visiting this city’s 2,000-year-old citadel, have been retrieved since Friday’s 6.5 magnitude earthquake in southeastern Iran, a local government spokesman said.

“I believe the toll will reach 30,000,” the Reuters news agency quoted a government official in Kerman province, where the quake struck, as saying. “Some outlying villages are even more badly damaged than Bam. They are 100 percent destroyed.”

Iran’s interior minister said the search would continue.

“We have not lost hope for survivors, and our priority remains to find them,” Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari said.

Asadollah Iranmanesh, spokesman for the provincial governor’s office, said one man was pulled alive from the rubble yesterday. A day earlier, officials reported freeing 150 survivors.

Planes from dozens of countries landed in the provincial capital of Kerman with relief supplies, volunteers and dogs trained to find bodies and survivors in the debris.

U.S. military C-130 cargo planes were among them, despite long-severed diplomatic relations and President Bush’s characterization of Iran as being part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and North Korea.

Traffic clogged the roads leading in and out of Bam, 630 miles southeast of Tehran, the Iranian capital.

Survivors with any kind of motor vehicle loaded furniture and whatever else they could salvage and headed for other cities. Incoming traffic brought relief supplies, volunteers and relatives desperate for news of their kin.

Mostafa Biderani and his wife, Zahra Nazari, wept in front of a destroyed police station in the center of Bam, slapping their faces and beating their chests in an Islamic expression of grief.

“I pulled my son out of the rubble this morning,” said Mr. Biderani, who drove from Isfahan, 470 miles to the northwest. “But all my hopes were dashed when I saw the police station had collapsed. I pulled out my son with my bare hands.”

The traditional sun-dried, mud-brick construction of the houses doomed many occupants, as it has for centuries in earthquake-prone Iran.

Heavy roofs, often sealed with cement or plaster to keep out the rain, sit atop mud-brick walls that have no support beams. When the walls crumble, the roofs smash down, leaving few air pockets and crushing or suffocating anyone inside.

The quake struck about 5:30 a.m. Friday, when most people were still sleeping. Experts say that people can survive up to 72 hours, sometimes longer, in the rubble if they have enough air to breathe. Bam will have passed the 72-hour mark by sunrise today.

“In these conditions, we are not optimistic of finding anyone alive. Hopes are dwindling fast,” said Barry Sessions of Britain’s Rapid-U.K. rescue group, which did not find any survivors in 24 hours of searching.

“The earthquake reduced most of the buildings to something like talcum powder. Many of the casualties suffocated, and there are few voids or gaps left in the buildings where we would normally find survivors,” he said.

His thoughts were echoed by other relief workers.

Luca Spoletini, spokesman for the Italian Civil Protection, said its teams found nothing but corpses after a day spent probing the rubble.

Describing a visit to Barazat, a town with a population of 20,000 a few miles outside Bam, Mr. Spoletini said, “There is nothing any more. Not one single house, not one single building stands upright. It is like the apocalypse. I have never seen anything like that.”

By Saturday night, enough tents had arrived to accommodate the thousands of homeless. There was even a bit of normalcy, with people complaining that they had to share a tent with another family.

Looters also were out, grabbing food from warehouses and grocery shops. Police tried to control them by shooting in the air.

In addition to Italian and British teams, rescuers, supplies or pledges of aid arrived from Austria, Azerbaijan, Britain, Finland, Germany, Russia, Turkey and dozens of other nations.

The United States arranged an airlift of 150,000 pounds of food, water and medical supplies. Four military planes flew into the country from Kuwait.

“The reception was beyond expectations,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jeff Bohn, who was on the first plane. “The warmth that the Iranian military and civil-aviation workers gave us was truly incredible.”

An Iranian navy helicopter crashed 30 miles southwest of Bam yesterday after delivering tents and blankets, the regional governor’s office said. All three crewmen were killed, it said.

Bam was best known for its medieval citadel, considered the world’s largest surviving mud fortress. Most of the fortress, including a massive square tower, crumbled like a sand castle when the quake hit.

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