x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Iran quake: focus turns to survivors after 227 die

As the country mourned its dead, exhausted relief workers switched to helping the living - the thousands left homeless by Saturday's disaster.

An Iranian resident from the village of Baje-Baj, near the town of Varzaqan, sits on the rubble of his home as rescue workers search for survivors.
An Iranian resident from the village of Baje-Baj, near the town of Varzaqan, sits on the rubble of his home as rescue workers search for survivors.

Iran halted search and rescue operations yesterday afternoon after powerful twin earthquakes that killed at least 227 people, injured more than 1,300 and devastated scores of north-western villages, saying all survivors had been located.

As the country mourned its dead, exhausted relief workers switched to helping the living - the thousands left homeless by Saturday's disaster.

Because of numerous aftershocks, many were expected to spend a second chilly night huddled in makeshift camps in the mountainous area. The quakes hit the towns of Ahar, Haris and Varzaqan in Iran's East Azerbaijan province, about 64 kilometres north-east of Tabriz, the region's biggest city, and 322km north-west of Tehran.

Witnesses recalled harrowing scenes yesterday morning as rescuers, who had saved hundreds of people overnight on Saturday, desperately scrambled through the rubble of shattered villages to find more survivors.

The bodies - many of women and children - were grouped together out in the open.

Teams of men took turns to dig graves while others boiled water for the ritual cleaning of the dead and grieving women keened over their lost loved ones.

"This village is a mass grave," said Alireza Haidaree, an emergency worker who supervised a bulldozer in the village of Baje Baj, where 33 of the 414 inhabitants died.

"There are so many other villages that have been completely destroyed," he said.

Iran - one of the world's most quake-prone nations - has invaluable but grim experience in dealing with such harrowing tragedies.

Rescue and relief teams are well rehearsed, organised, equipped and can mobilise swiftly.

Iran's Red Crescent said about 6,000 tents and 18,000 cans of food had been distributed along with bread, blankets, drinking water and blood supplies.

Sixty-six rescue teams were also sent to the stricken area, along with scores of ambulances and five helicopters.

The rapid rescue operation also highlighted the fact that village residents knew each other well and where to look, while most collapsed buildings were small. The Red Crescent said offers of help had been received from Turkey, Taiwan, Singapore and Germany, but were turned down because the Islamic Republic was able to cope with the disaster by itself.

The quakes struck within 11 minutes of each other on Saturday afternoon as many people were at home observing Ramadan fasting.

The first had a magnitude of 6.4 while the second registered 6.3, according to the US Geological Survey, which monitors seismic activity worldwide.

Some were fortunate to be out tending their fields.

"I was working on my farm, on my tractor, and I felt the earth shake and I was thrown off the vehicle," a 40-year-old farmer in one hamlet said.

His family, which was with him, survived. But many others were left grief-stricken.

Zeinab, a 13-year-old girl from the village of Mirza Ali Kandi, saw her eight-year-old brother and 16-year-old sister die in front of her.

"I was outside my home playing when it [the first quake] happened. I ran inside looking for my brother and found him under a big pile of rubble," she said.

"I tried to get him out. And then I heard my sister cry and I turned and she had a big stone in her head, and I ran out." Sobbing, Zeinab added: "I wish it had been me, too. I wish I hadn't run out."

No deaths were reported in Tabriz, where buildings are sturdily constructed, although the city's hospitals were flooded with the injured from surrounding villages.

Almost all of the casualties were from rural areas, where homes are often made of concrete blocks or mud brick that can crumble and collapse in a strong quake.

Iranian officials said about half the 600 villages located in the disaster zone were damaged, with half a dozen wiped out.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, gave orders for home reconstruction to begin immediately because of the harsh winter that will grip the region by the end of the year.

Iran straddles several major faultlines and experiences at least one minor earthquake every day, although the vast majority are so small they go unnoticed.

But several in recent decades have been devastating. In 1997, a 7.3 magnitude quake killed about 1,567 people in the rural eastern areas near the Afghan border.

In 2003, a magnitude 6.6 quake struck the southern desert city of Bam, about 1,000 kilometres southeast of Tehran.

The quake killed 31,000 people - about a quarter of the population - and destroying the city's famed ancient mud-built citadel.

Iran's worst recorded disaster came in June 1990, when 50,000 people died in a 7.4 magnitude quake that devastated the Caspian regions of Gilan and Zanjan.

Residents in Tehran have long feared their sprawling city of 12 million people could be next.

The city - hit by a magnitude 7 quake in 1830 - is perched on lethal geological faults and some experts estimate that as many as 700,000 of its residents could die if a "big one" struck again, leaving the country "decapitated".

Some Iranian geophysicists have suggested that the capital be moved to a safer part of the country, a proposal first aired in 1991.

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse