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Nation Mourns As Gorbachev Inspects Earthquake Disaster Area

December 11, 1988

YEREVAN, U.S.S.R. (AP) _ President Mikhail S. Gorbachev consoled survivors and urged on rescuers during a visit Saturday to Armenia, where an earthquake killed at least 40,000 people, trapped countless others and left half a million homeless.

″We all, the whole of the country, share your sorrow,″ the official Tass news agency quoted Gorbachev as saying in the southern Soviet republic, where the quake hit Wednesday.

″You can be sure that every effort will be made to give you the necessary help in full measure,″ he said. ″The most important thing now is to search for and rescue all possible survivors.″

Rescue workers climbed over piles of rubble from shattered buildings, listening for voices of trapped people.

The government released its first authoritative estimate of the casualties from the earthquake, which measured 6.9 on the Richter scale. Deputy Foreign Minister Valentin Nikiforov told a Moscow news conference that 40,000 to 45,000 people were killed and that 12,000 were hurt.

In Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, 500 of the injured were hospitalized in the Yerevan Surgical Insitute.

″The entire staff since the seventh has not left the institution,″ said the hospital’s director, Alexander Mikhailyan.

Visitors to Yerevan heard the constant buzzing of helicopters traveling from the disaster area 50 miles northwest to ferry dead and wounded.

A small group of foreign reporters, the first allowed into Armenia since Wednesday’s earthquake, saw roads around Yerevan’s Zvarnots Airport clogged with relief vehicles. Fog slowed emergency airlifts of supplies from throughout the Soviet Union and abroad.

College students who helped in the rescue returned to Yerevan with tales of vast destruction.

″Five homes remain in Spitak. That is all. The rest are destroyed. You can’t describe it. You have to see it,″ Arsen Minasyan, a student at an agricultural institute, said in an interview with The Associated Press. Spitak is a city of about 16,000 people.

Another student, Tanya Kezorkian, a New Yorker going to school in Yerevan, watched rescue attempts outside a computer institute in Leninakan, a city of 250,000 people. ″In four hours, they took four people out. But they say there were 250 people in there. That is the pattern,″ she said.

The national TV news program Vremya began its broadcast with somber music and shots of the red state flag flying at half-staff at the snow-covered Kremlin. Dozens of black and white coffins were piled near an airplane, and a man sobbed hysterically as two assistants helped him walk.

Still photographs showed Gorbachev and his wife Raisa, with expressions of shock on their faces, visiting the disaster area and comforting survivors and speaking to some of the thousands of rescuers.

Gorbachev, who cut short a U.S. visit Thursday, arrived in Armenia on Saturday to oversee the disaster relief. He drove by ruined homes, public buildings and factories in Leninakan, near the epicenter of the quake.

″We need first and foremost machinery 3/8 We don’t have enough powerful cranes,″ Tass quoted one man as shouting to Gorbachev.

Gorbachev said other Soviet cities were prepared to take in 50,000 survivors. He called for evacuating women and children and for all men to help in rescue operations.

Tass interviewed Vanik Shemoyan, a sugar factory engineer in Spitak.

″My youngest son, along with all his classmates, perished during a class,″ he said. ″In other families, children have been orphaned. I took two such kids, and I will try to become a good father to them.″

Soviets observed a day of mourning by affixing black ribbons to Soviet flags, donating blood and preparing beds in thousands of hotels, camps and homes to take in survivors.

In London, the Sunday Telegraph quoted Ambartsum Galstian, a member of the Karabakh Commmittee, as saying half the Armenian nationalist group’s 11 leaders were arrested Saturday.

The committee is the major organization campaigning for annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region in the neighboring Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. The ethnic turmoil has sent thousands of Armenians fleeing Azerbaijan for Armenia in recent weeks.

Yuri P. Chaplygin, Council of Ministers spokesman, said nearly 7,000 people were hospitalized from the quake, many with burns and crushed limbs.

The Soviet Union sent 500 of its best doctors to Yerevan, and 200 medical teams fanned out across rural parts of the disaster area. Construction experts, helicopters, massive cranes, food, fuel and tents also were being rushed to the area from throughout the country.

Health Minister Yevgeny I. Chazov told Tass the area looked like a war front.

Tent cities were set up to house a half million people left homeless, and people huddled around bonfires to keep warm in 40-degree weather.

In Leninakan, more than three-quarters of the houses were destroyed, and the city of Spitak has been written off as a total loss, Chaplygin told reporters.

″Spitak won’t be restored because there is nothing left to restore,″ he said. ″A new city will be built on the same spot.″

Igor Nersesov, a Soviet seismologist, told reporters an investigation had been launched into why so few buildings withstood the quake.

Nikiforov said 1,500 people were rescued from the ruins on Friday after two full days of being trapped. A French team equipped with infrared equipment to detect warm bodies saved 60 lives, he said.

The French aid was part of a major international airlift of people and supplies. Five flights arrived in Yerevan on Friday, from France, Italy and Switzerland. Dozens more were arriving Saturday.

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