October 12, 2005

Hunt for Quake Victims a Grim Job

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan -- The slow, grim job of recovering the dead from Kashmir's earthquake continued on Wednesday across the region where countless victims lie entombed where they died.

The 7.6 magnitude quake killed more than 20,000 people and injured about 50,000, by the official federal government count. Some local rescue officials say the final death toll could be as high as 50,000.

Many victims still lie buried in ruins across the Himalayan region.

On Wednesday, a digger clawed through the rubble of what was a woman's hostel at the university in nearly destroyed Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir.

Soldiers and rescue workers, including several members of a Turkish team, stood by watching.

After shifting a pile of tangled concrete blocks and steel bars one of the Turkish rescue workers got down into the rubble and peered into crevices.

Nothing was seen and the digger ripped into another pile sending a cloud of dust into the air already heavy with the smell of bodies.

No one is seriously expecting anyone to be left alive in the flattened building overlooking beautiful Himalayan foothills and distant peaks.

"There's a one percent chance, maybe," said an exhausted-looking doctor, Sulemankhail Sanaullah. People could survive for 72 hours without water, he said, about 80 hours after the quake.

But one woman was found alive at another site in the city on Wednesday and air-lifted to hospital, officials said.

A soldier said more than 70 women were believed to be in the rubble of the hostel. Piles of exercise books and dusty, battered women's shoes lay scattered on a broken chunk of concrete. Pillows, blankets and a shampoo bottle were nearby.

Three bodies had been found on Tuesday and another three on Wednesday. Two of the dead were so badly mutilated that no one had been able to identify them and they lay unclaimed, he said.

Soon another victim was found.

One of the Turkish rescue workers held up his hand to tell the digger to stop and got down and started pulling away chunks of concrete. Other rescue workers and soldiers joined him, some using bare hands to toss aside concrete piece by piece. Some used spades to carefully scrape away the debris.

Relatives of the missing and onlookers watched from a distance. A brief fight erupted in the crowd over some trivial dispute.

The digger was called back to clear some more large pieces and then it rumbled off a few meters, smashing down a tree with its arm to begin work on another section of the ruins.

Another Turkish worker was called over and used a metal cutter to snap though a couple of steel bars by the body and the painstaking dig went on.

Flies were soon buzzing around and rescue workers held a white sheet over the body as others tried to ease it out.

A few more chunks of debris were prised out and the body was finally lifted, placed in a blanket and carried away, dusty-grey bare feet poking out.

It had taken nearly an hour from the time the body had been found for another victim of the quake to be recovered.