Hopes for Finding Survivors Fade

With aid from relief organizations around the world, the Iranian city of Bam is slowly piecing itself back together. But hopes for finding people alive beneath the rubble has become a race against the clock.

European relief workers begin their work in Iran (photo: AP)

​​Rescue workers from around the world on Sunday continued sifting through the debris from one of the worst earthquakes Iran has ever seen. But in the days following Friday’s earthquake, hopes are sinking that many more survivors will be found. Now, what began as a search and rescue operation has become a search and retrieve job – with the bodies of entire families being pulled out of the rubble.

Initially, the death toll was estimated at 30,000 or more, but overnight, the governor of the Kerman province provided a lower but nonetheless staggering figure. "We’re assuming that the quake in Bam took 5,000 to 10,000 human lives," Mohammad Ali Karimi told reporters. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has described the earthquake as a "national tragedy." By Sunday afternoon, however, the Iranian Interior Ministry said the number of casualties was expected to grow to at least 20,000.

Friday morning's earthquake, which registered 6.3 on the Richter scale, literally flattened the city of Bam, which has a population of 100,000 and is located on the country’s ancient Silk Road.

German disaster workers save 20

Iranian state news agency Irna has reported that aid workers from Germany’s federal disaster relief agency, THW, have already rescued 20 people using search and rescue dogs.

A spokesman for the Technisches Hilfswerk (THW) said that about 50 German experts are now in Iran aiding with rescue work. The team is equipped with tracking dogs, telescope cameras, drills and other tools they need to locate survivors amid the rubble.

The chances of finding survivors is growing increasingly slim as rescuers race against the clock. The city has an elevation of 1,000 meters, icy cold weather and other factors that would make it difficult for people to survive more than a few days. Generally, people buried in earthquakes can’t survive longer than 72 hours, meaning the chances of finding more people after Monday morning would be very low. But relief workers haven’t given up yet.

"This is really about giving people hope and offering our support," said Nicolas Hefner, a THW spokesman.

An international effort

Members of THW’s Rapid Deployment Unit Search and Rescue team (SEEBA) landed on Saturday at Kerman, a city about 300 kilometers from the quake’s epicenter in Bam. They were subsequently transported by Iranian Military craft to the catastrophe area. In addition to THW, the plane also carried members of the German Red Cross, the Workers' Samaritan Federation, Malteser Hilfsdienst (the Ambulance Corps of the Order of Malta) and the Association of German Rescue Dogs, who are joining in the rescue and relief efforts.

Aid workers and planes from Russia and Britain have also arrived in Kerman. There, they join relief workers from Switzerland, France and other European Union nations as well as China.

International Red Cross and Red Crescent logos

​​At the request of the Iranian government, the International Red Cross and its sister organization Red Crescent are also delivering 20,000 tens, 200,000 blankets, 30 power generators and 20,000 kerosene heaters. Though neither organization has provided an estimate of the damage caused by the earthquake, officials in Geneva said long-term relief would be required as the city is rebuilt and tens of thousands are provided with medical care.

Help from Brussels

The European Union has also increased pledge of earthquake relief to Iran from €800,000 to €2.3 million. A spokesperson for the European Commission said the money would be used for search and rescue teams, for medical care as well as providing shelter, water and heat for the tens of thousands of homeless in the region. Italy, currently the rotating president of the EU, has take over responsibility for coordinating European relief efforts in Iran. The EU has also said it will consider making additional funds available.

Meanwhile, the Iranians have also set aside their political differences with the United States and are allowing American relief workers to enter the country with simplified visa procedures. Two U.S. cargo planes were expected to land carrying emergency relief aid on Sunday.

© Deutsche Welle / DW-WORLD.DE 2003

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