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Rescue Workers Stream to South Asia Quake Sites


From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Pakistan, rescue workers, soldiers and ordinary people desperately hoping to save friends and relatives are trying for a second day to dig out the victims of yesterday's catastrophic earthquake. The scope of the disaster didn't become clear until sunrise today, and the death toll rose dramatically. Pakistan's government now says over 19,000 people have been killed and over 40,000 injured. Those figures are expected to rise as more remote regions report in. Though the quake was felt across a large part of South Asia and in Afghanistan, Pakistan is by far the worst-hit area. There are also hundreds of dead in Indian-controlled Kashmir. NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves sent this report.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

It took a day before it became clear that this is a major natural disaster. This morning, as the sun rose over the devastation, the spokesman for Pakistan's armed forces, General Shaukat Sultan, reeled off statistics confirming everyone's worst fears.

General SHAUKAT SULTAN (Spokesman, Pakistani Armed Forces): The casualties that were--that we have received here this morning indicates over 18,000 killed, specifically 18,020 dead.

REEVES: The epicenter of the quake was some 60 miles northeast of Islamabad. That means the most devastated areas are in the remote mountains of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and in the wilds of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. Thousands of mud and brick homes have been flattened. But with roads blocked by huge landslides and broken telephone lines, it's been hard so far to establish the scope of the death and destruction. General Shaukat Sultan is not expecting the picture to improve. By evening, the numbers were climbing still higher, and General Sultan says he expects that to continue.

Gen. SULTAN: Let me tell you that the death toll is likely to rise many fold as we reach certain remote areas which have not been reached so far.

REEVES: Reports from communities around the earthquake's epicenter remain vague and hard to verify, but they speak of terrible tragedies: of several hundred school children, for example, who died in two schools when buildings collapsed on their heads; of hundreds of children in a town called Balakot, who are buried alive and whose parents have been trying to dig them out of the rubble with their bare hands. Most of Balakot--a fairly large town just west of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir--has reportedly been leveled.

While many such accounts have yet to be confirmed, it's clear the quake is one of the worst natural disasters seen in this part of the world for decades. Julia Spry-Leverton, communications chief for UNICEF in Pakistan, says the United Nations has launched a joint relief operation.

Ms. JULIA SPRY-LEVERTON (Pakistan Communications Chief, UNICEF): There's a helicopter leaving with a joint team as we speak to go to Muzaffarabad, and there's a road-based team which will have WHO, UNICEF and other agency staff. There's also a high-level disaster management team arriving today.

REEVES: Spry-Leverton says the rescue operation has been made even more difficult by terrible weather conditions which followed after the 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck.

Ms. SPRY-LEVERTON: I live in Islamabad, and I was appalled by the sudden terrible storm that came upwards about 10:00 at night. It lasted, you know, a long, long time. Hail was lashing at the windows, I heard talk of snow and gusting winds and rain brought down lots of structures. I mean, there was very dramatic lightning in the sky, and that's where we could see the lightning, behind these ...(unintelligible) to the north of the town, which is, of course, leading up to the worst-affected areas.

REEVES: The weather made it even harder for those trying to find survivors beneath a giant pile of rubble created when the quake brought down a 10-story apartment block in Islamabad. Rescue teams supported by earth-moving equipment and cranes have been working non-stop at the sight. Around three dozen bodies have reportedly been recovered, and some 80 people have managed to get out alive. Mike Wooldridge of the BBC was at the scene this morning when a man was lifted alive out of the debris.

Mr. MIKE WOOLDRIDGE (BBC): A huge cheer went up from the crowds who are waiting across the road from the apartment complex here, and among that crowd are, as you might expect, relatives, friends of people who are trapped inside here. So there's an extraordinary atmosphere here this morning. This rescue operation with this one further success, at least, being carried out by Pakistani rescuers, but also joined this morning by a British rescue team who flew in overnight with rather more specialized rescue equipment.

REEVES: Wooldridge says there task, too, is fraught with difficulties.

Mr. WOOLDRIDGE: The real challenges are very, very heavy concrete beams. So even if they can actually hear people, actually getting to them, getting to them in time, is going to be immensely difficult. But these are teams with a lot of experience of this work. They have hope from other similar situations that for at least 72 hours or so there will remain hope.

REEVES: The emphasis now is on helping the many thousands--the injured and the bereaved--stricken by this disaster. Pakistan's President Pervaiz Musharraf has appealed for international assistance. The United States, though burdened by the vast cost of its own hurricanes, has offered to help. Britain, Turkey, Japan and others are also weighing in. Vivian Tan, a UN official in Islamabad, says the needs of the survivors will be enormous.

Ms. VIVIAN TAN (UN Official): At this point I think their immediate needs are shelter, emergency shelter, and relief items like food, plastic sheeting, blankets.

REEVES: According to UNICEF, a high proportion of the population in the earthquake-affected area comprises children. Julia Spry-Leverton of UNICEF says this is a particular concern.

Ms. SPRY-LEVERTON: We're worried, of course, about children because with the autumn weather here, the temperatures at night, particularly in the northern areas, go down quite severely. And again, our imagination is telling us that families have been left with nothing.

REEVES: The next 72 hours will likely tell how serious this disaster is, but the picture is already very bleak. Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

HANSEN: After Hurricane Katrina, Pakistan offered assistance to the United States, and that is being reciprocated by President Bush. He said the US would provide $100,000 in emergency aid funds and offered military helicopters to aid in the search and rescue. The president added that more assistance will be provided as needed. Australia, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also sending help. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.