CAIRO — One of the most powerful earthquakes in Egypt's modern history plunged this teeming capital into panic Monday, collapsing buildings and tumbling huge mosque minarets. At least 370 people were killed and more than 3,000 others injured, authorities said.
The destructive temblor, with a 5.9 magnitude, rocked Cairo shortly after 3 p.m., at the height of midday traffic. It caused bloody traffic pileups and gridlocked the city's already crowded thoroughfares for much of the afternoon.
Frightened residents threw themselves from balconies as the city's massive concrete high-rises began to sway. Thousands rushed into the streets and into nearby mosques as clouds of dust and the dull boom of stretching joists and tumbling concrete rose over the city.
Many people were killed when they threw themselves from windows or were caught in stampedes as this city of 12 million, unaccustomed to quakes, rolled under a major temblor centered just 20 miles southwest of the capital.
There were no immediate reports of damage to Egypt's famed Pharaonic monuments, the Pyramids and the Sphinx. But the official Middle East News Agency said there was significant damage to an unidentified ancient mosque in Cairo.
In Southern California, seismologists and state officials noted that the Egyptian quake matched the 5.9 magnitude Whittier Narrows temblor of Oct. 1, 1987; the Egyptian quake's epicenter was about the same distance from the center of metropolitan Cairo as the Whittier Narrows temblor was from downtown Los Angeles.
But the fatal toll from Whittier Narrows quake, which caused damage estimated at $368 million, was just eight--three people struck by objects; five dead from heart attacks or indirect effects. The toll was lower because of stringent building rules and safety practices in effect in Southern California, an area prone to many more quakes than Cairo, officials said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, visiting Beijing, announced he would cut short his Asia tour and return home. Offers of support and assistance came from Saudi Arabia and the country with which Egypt made peace in 1979, Israel. Shocks from the quake were felt as far away as Jerusalem, 250 miles northeast of Cairo.
"We all started saying Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! (God is great!)," said a man who rushed from the 10th floor of the undamaged state television building. "We were saying farewell to the world, we all knew we were dying. I was saying to God, 'Take me fast.' "
More than 116 buildings were seriously damaged or collapsed, casualties of a city whose ancient neighborhoods hold tight clusters of crowded tenements and whose modern districts have been plagued with illegal high-rises that often fall of their own accord.
Of the death and damage toll, Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sedki observed, "These are the figures we have so far . . . (but) God only knows."
The worst damage appeared to be in the well-heeled suburb of Heliopolis, where a 14-story apartment building was reduced to a pile of stones and twisted steel. Neighbors pulled 15 survivors from the wreckage, and bulldozers worked through the night in search of victims as dazed residents watched and held their heads in their hands.
Some workers began plowing through the rubble with their bare hands after they heard voices under the remains of about 75 apartments. Almost 15 hours after the quake, a bulldozer operator spotted a woman waving. He eventually hauled her--clinging tearfully to her 2-year-old son--alive from the rubble.
In the old Helmiya district--the grand neighborhood of Ottoman pashas that now teems with tiny alleys and narrow, squalid apartment buildings--at least four buildings collapsed. A shattered four-story apartment building stood with chairs and blankets dangling crazily from the remaining beams; there was furniture smashed amid the rubble below.
"My mother was in there," said a man who gave his name as Sayid. Tears streamed down his face as he stood at the edge of the ruin. "It was nothing but dust and stones. We pulled the people we could out, but we don't know how many are still in there. We pulled out three. One of them was dead."
In the Dokki district, the top half of a large minaret plunged into the auditorium of the mosque below, sending dazed, dust-covered worshipers into the streets screaming Allahu akbar! Another minaret fell near the old El Sakayeen Alley, made famous in a novel by the Nobel prize-winning Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz.
Central Cairo's Qasr al Aini Hospital, the largest such public facility in the capital, was a surreal scene of pandemonium Monday night. Helmeted riot police held back dozens of wailing relatives who sought to aid the overburdened staff by wheeling injured relatives on stretchers along a blood-dabbled corridor.