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5,000 die as earthquake ruins historic Iranian city

The 6.5-magnitude temblor injures thousands and leaves scores homeless in wintery weather. Popular tourist sites are reduced to rubble.

By Wire services
Published December 27, 2003

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BAM, 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 on Friday, killing at least 5,000 people and injuring 30,000.

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 stood.

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

"The disaster is far too huge for us to meet all of our needs," President Mohammad 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.

By nightfall Friday, 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 predawn quake.

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

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," Mohammed Karimi said at the cemetery, where he had brought the bodies of his wife and 4-year-old daughter.

"Last night before she went to sleep she made me a drawing and kissed me four times," he said of his daughter, Nazenine, whose body he held in his arms. "When I asked, "Why four kisses?' she said, "Maybe I won't see you again, Papa,"' Karimi said, tears streaming down his face.

The quake struck at 5:28 a.m., while many were asleep. IRNA put the 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.

"Our immediate two priorities are dealing with the people who are trapped and transferring the wounded to other areas," Lari said. "Our biggest difficulty so far is rescuing people because there is no electricity and people are doing what they can with flashlights."

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 damaged in the region, which is home to about 230,000 people and lies about 630 miles southeast of the capital 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 faultlines 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.

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

The United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, has asked Iran for permission to send an UNESCO 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.


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