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Contruction Draws Ire in Algerian Quake

May 24, 2003

CORSO, Algeria (AP) _ Dust-covered but alive, a two-year-old girl was pulled from the rubble of Algeria’s earthquake, a moment of joy for rescuers as the smell of decaying bodies stifled hopes of finding many others alive.

With the death toll topping 1,600 and expected to climb, grief turned to anger with widespread complaints that rescue efforts were inadequate and that shoddy construction compounded the devastation of Wednesday evening’s quake.

After two days of counting bodies and fewer and fewer survivors, the remarkable rescue Friday of wide-eyed toddler Emilie Kaidi from the rubble of her family’s home in Corso, in the quake zone east of the capital Algiers, offered momentary hope.

Guided by her plaintive cries and an ultrasound locating device inserted into the wreckage, rescuers found her beneath the shattered concrete of her collapsed ground-floor bedroom, protected by a door that had fallen across a television set.

Rescuers asked for total silence as they sought to precisely locate her, witnesses said. A half-hour later, a Spanish volunteer, wedged in a tiny hole in the rubble, handed the black-haired little girl dressed in a red shirt up to other rescuers.

Another volunteer immediately put his hand over her eyes to block out the blinding daylight. She appeared unharmed.

``It warmed our hearts and gave us hope,″ said Amirouche Istanbule, who watched the rescue.

Emilie’s parents also survived. But her sister, 4-year-old Lisa, died in the ruins of the four-story building, said another witness, Amar Boutihe, a 46-year-old construction manager who lives across the street.

``The mood really changed an hour later when they brought out her sister,″ he said.

By Friday, the death toll from the 6.8-magnitude quake east of Algiers had risen to more than 1,600 and was expected climb, the North African country’s Interior Ministry said. Another 7,207 were injured.

Even as nations around the world rushed in medical teams, search dogs and other aid, villagers in destroyed towns like Corso struggled with shortages of food, water, electricity, medicine and blankets.

``Nobody has visited us, not even to establish a death count,″ said Yoscef Manel, 34. ``Helicopters flew overhead and the interior minister drove through, but it’s noise for nothing.″

Many directed their anger against builders and the government, saying it had turned a blind eye to substandard construction. Others faulted corruption.

``Our building is still standing because it was built by an honest man,″ said Lies Boumeridja, an egg and poultry vendor in Bourmerdes, a nearby town where the official news agency APS said 955 people died.

``That house over there used to be filled with lovely people, but it was built by villains,″ Boumeridja said, pointing to a ruined neighboring building.

Mohamed Laichaoui, an architect in Algiers, blamed contractors who cut corners and officials whom he said often wrote up bogus approvals for housing projects.

``Developers don’t respect the technical norms. They cheat on the amounts of concrete and iron that they use on the construction sites,″ he said. ``Many people are dead because of them.″

Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia vowed to prosecute contractors ``if malpractice in construction is proven,″ APS reported. He said 500 newly built homes had been damaged.

Ouyahia promised $7,000 in aid for each victim, and housing for the homeless.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika visited hospitals in Ain Taya and El Harrach, outside Algiers, Friday night. President Bush offered ``the support and friendship of the United States″ in a call to Bouteflika on Friday, APS reported.

The government struggled to respond, moving dozens of ambulances, 3,000 police and security agents and electrical workers into the quake zone. The army brought in tents, ambulances and engineering equipment. Water trucks made rounds to stricken villages.

But heavy machinery needed to dig out survivors and bodies was absent in many areas, townspeople said.

Some villagers blamed the high death toll on a lack of outside help. Left on their own, townspeople struggled vainly to move huge cement slabs with their bare hands or shovels, their dying loved ones just yards away.

As time passed, rescuers stopped listening for survivors and instead were being guided by the scent of decaying bodies, said Saa Sayah, a captain in Algeria’s civil protection unit.

The country declared a three-day mourning period Friday.

Victims’ bodies were wrapped in blankets and plastic bags at morgues. Townspeople searching for missing relatives covered their faces against the smell as they moved from body to body.

At El-Alia cemetery in Algiers, hundreds of men carried open wooden boxes containing bodies wrapped in blankets for burial in a newly cleared field. People flocked to boards plastered with photographs of the dead to identify loved ones.

The quake hit about 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, with its epicenter east of Algiers. It was Algeria’s deadliest since a pair of temblors west of the capital killed up to 5,000 in October 1980, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

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