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Rescuers dig with bulldozers, spades _ even hands _ for survivors

May 13, 1997

ARDAKUL, Iran (AP) _ Using bulldozers, spades and even hands, rescuers struggled to pull bricks and debris from collapsed homes today as hope faded for finding more survivors of a devastating earthquake.

The toll from Saturday’s quake is uncertain, with Iran’s top official for disaster relief dismissing previous government estimates that 2,400 were killed. Rasul Zargar instead put the death toll today at 1,560. A day earlier, a pro-government newspaper reported 4,000 dead.

In Ardakul, where almost one-third of the village’s 1,600 residents were killed, a 12-year-old girl picked through the rubble.

``We have lost everything,″ said Fatima Yari.

But her family was lucky.

Her 3-year-old sister Mehri survived the earthquake when blankets and mattresses fell on top of her as the roof of their home collapsed.

The quake smashed the mud houses scattered through this farming region 450 miles east of Tehran, and near-freezing temperatures at night have threatened survivors. Some 100,000 people were left homeless.

Plane loads of tents, blankets and food were arriving from neighboring countries, including the oil-rich Arab Gulf. The United States, long a vociferous critic of the Iranian government, on Monday pledged $100,000 to the Red Cross for the earthquake victims.

In Ardakul, a prosperous village of concrete and steel homes, villagers and rescue teams searched for survivors or the remains of their neighbors.

They were often guided by the faint smell of rotting flesh or the presence of flies. Soldiers wore scarves around their faces to block the smell and the dust. A 10-year-old boy joined the digging with his toy shovel.

Abbas Rastgou-Nejad, a bearded man whose black pants and jacket were white with dust, dug with his family, searching for his two children, Mariam, 12, and Hassan, 8.

His searched ended in tragedy when soldiers discovered the bodies of both children amid the rubble.

Nearby, a 20-year-old man who would only give his first name, Mohsen, laid on the ground on a mound of rubble as bulldozers cleared through what was once his home.

``Oh mother, oh mother, why have you left me?″ he wailed. ``How will I live without you?″

Shattered television sets, twisted ovens and a blue jeep buried up to its fender were visible amidst the rubble, signs of the town’s former prosperity.

Red Crescent set up some 100 tents in Ardakul and trucked in water and food for many of the now destitute villagers.

President Hashemi Rafsanjani interrupted a visit to Turkmenistan on Monday to visit the stricken area.

``We have no other choice but to surrender to our fate,″ he said. ``There are some things that we can do. But there are things that we cannot do, like compensate the lives of your relatives.″

Rafsanjani promised that his government would start rebuilding homes within a month. He also pledged interest-free loans as well as grants to surviving families.

As his motorcade drove through the devastation, thousands mobbed his car, some clinging to the vehicle.

Others chanted the traditional greeting, ``Khoshamadi,″ or ``Welcome.″ At one point, Rafsanjani got out and hugged an old woman who had lost her husband.

Frequently hit by earthquakes, Iran has become increasingly sophisticated in handling such natural disasters.

A quake with a magnitude of 7.7 struck the same region in 1978, killing 25,000 people.

Since then, the government has built more roads and hospitals. It has set up National Disaster headquarters in all major towns and cities and provided emergency crews with mobile hospital units.

It also has tried to make new buildings more earthquake-resistant.

On Monday, Zargary toured the stricken area and complained that some of the government buildings in Khorasan Province were not properly engineered to withstand earthquakes.

He was especially critical that schools, rural clinics and administration buildings had fallen _ despite better construction methods mandated after the 1978 quake.

Iranian officials estimate the damage from the latest quake at $66.7 million.

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