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Survivor of Deadly Quake: ‘We All Helped Each Other’

May 31, 1995

NEFTEGORSK, Sakhalin Island (AP) _ She spent 80 hours pinned under the rubble of what had been her home. Early today, when a crew finally pulled away the chunks of concrete and gently lifted her free, 61-year-old Vera Formina sobbed.

``Thank you, thank you, thank you,″ she said, reaching up to kiss a dirt-encrusted rescuer.

Throughout this quake-ravaged oil town, rescuers raced time and fought death. Often they lost. Sometimes they won.

``We found three alive here yesterday,″ said rescuer Andre Legoshin, haggard and unshaven in his fourth day of digging through the ruins. ``We took six hours to dig out a 4-year-old boy.″

Those were the victories. But Legoshin, who flew in from the mainland city of Khabarovsk to help, shook his head as he described the defeats.

``We were finding two bodies an hour at one point,″ he said grimly. Nearly 400 people have been pulled out alive, but the harvest of death was growing. Authorities say they fear the death toll could top 2,000.

Amid the terror, there was tenderness. Formina’s hand protruded from the rubble as she lay pinned. While crews worked to free her, someone constantly kept hold of her hand to offer comfort.

Some survivors could hardly believe they were alive. Svetlana Socolova, 44, was in her second-story apartment when the quake struck early Sunday.

She, her son, her daughter and 4-year-old granddaughter were thrown through the front window as the building collapsed. They landed in the street in front of it, unharmed.

The five-story building was reduced to a twisted 20-foot pile of concrete. Socolova _ still clad in her nightclothes, with a coat thrown over them _ stared at the wreckage.

``I have no hope there are any survivors,″ she said.

Valentina Omalova, 43, was walking home when the quake hit. Staggering as the street bucked beneath her, she watched her own building sway, then crash in on itself.

She knew her 18-year-old son, Alexei, was at a nearby disco, packed with Saturday night revelers. She ran there as fast as her shaking legs would carry her, and found it, too, had collapsed.

But she heard cries coming from beneath the rubble _ including the voice of her son. She dug him out with her own hands.

His legs were both broken. But he survived. Dozens of others died in the building.

``We all helped each other through the night,″ Omolova said.

Her son was flown to the mainland for medical treatment. She took shelter in a chicken coop outside town.

``I don’t know where we’re going to live now,″ she said. Authorities have said the town will not be rebuilt.

Even before the quake, Neftegorsk was a hardscrabble place, and the impoverished lives of its inhabitants could be seen in the rubble itself. Most of the possessions strewn about were simple: cheap shoes, plain clothing.

Three times a day, the rescuers were turning off heavy equipment and calling for silence so they could hear cries coming from under the rubble. But by today, the voices had grown few and faint.

Some bodies lay wrapped in the same blankets that had covered their sleeping owners when the quake hit. In the street, crude wooden coffins were stacked up, names scratched on them in charcoal.

As a cold sun burned through the morning fog, Dr. Viktor Konodoloz stepped outside his triage tent. Moans could be heard from inside.

He said he had treated 300 people found alive in the ruins, but with the temperature dipping below freezing at night, he feared not many more would be saved.

``The weather is our biggest enemy,″ he said.

As he spoke, Vera Formina, the woman just pulled from the ruins, arrived on a stretcher. He rushed to examine her, and stepped back, relieved.

``She will live,″ he said.

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