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Waiting in Vain: Search of Collapsed Building Yields No More Survivors

October 30, 1996

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Tears in her eyes, Soad Mohammed raised her hands to heaven Wednesday, asking God to save relatives buried in the ruins of a 12-story apartment building.

She was hopeful. Search dogs were sniffing near the crumbled concrete and mangled steel that had been her family’s home. Rescue workers grimaced as they listened for faint signs of life.

But Mohammed and other Egyptians waited and watched in vain.

Four days after the collapse of this suburban Cairo building, the search for survivors has become little more than a tedious, painful attempt to remove the wreckage and recover bodies already decomposing.

The death toll Wednesday was at least 31, but that was expected to rise dramatically as the bodies of dozens still missing are recovered. As many as 150 people, most of them Egyptians, were believed to have been in the building’s apartments and offices.

The last survivors were found Tuesday at dawn. Before their rescue, 21 hours had elapsed without anyone being found alive.

As usual with such disasters in Egypt, people blamed the government _ at first, for failing to enforce construction codes that might have prevented the building’s collapse, and later, for the length of time it was taking to find the victims.

At the site Wednesday, trucks carted off carpets, fans, chairs and a sofa. Possessions were being taken to the Interior Ministry where they could be claimed by relatives of the dead. A man’s pink shirt and other clothes were set aside to be hauled off later.

Friends and relatives at the scene brought a mix of desperate hopes and humble respect. The ruins have become a place of pilgrimage _ for mothers from southern Egypt, friends from Cairo, even a Saudi Arabian diplomat.

``I’m not going to leave until I see my son,″ said Um Abdu, who arrived at the site Monday from the southern Egyptian city of Qena. ``Whether he is alive or dead, I want to see him.″

Um Abdu held a small picture of her 16-year-old son, Abdu Atallah, close to her body. Like many Egyptian women, she goes by the name of her son, preceded by ``Um,″ which means ``mother″ in Arabic. She sat in a circle with several women, all dressed in traditional black from head to toe.

Nearby, friends of victims read verses from the Koran, waiting and hoping for news. Some had been camped in front of the ruins since Sunday. ``Three days are more than enough,″ one woman said bitterly.

For Fouad Shoukri, it was his fourth day waiting for news of his mother.

``According to science, we need a miracle to find anybody alive, but I just don’t lose hope in God,″ said Shoukri, the deputy counselor in the Saudi Consulate in the port of Alexandria.

Um Magda had not lost hope. Since Sunday, she had left the site only once to check the hospital for her sister.

``Last night I was chilled to the bone as I slept here,″ she said. ``My heart tells me my sister is still alive. God is capable of everything.″

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