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Few Survivors in Egypt Flood; Toll Rises to 460

November 04, 1994|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DURUNKA, Egypt — Amid charred coffins upended in wrecked cemeteries and blocks of houses in silent black ruins, emergency officials continued to pull bodies out of the rubble Thursday after heavy storms ignited a gasoline depot and sent a deadly torrent of flaming floodwater crashing through this sleeping town.

The death toll had risen to more than 460 by day's end, as stunned residents returned to the reeking ruins of their homes and hundreds of black-clad women began wailing at the gates of the cemeteries, awaiting the arrival of the dead.

As sporadic rains fed flooded roads throughout southern Egypt in the worst storms in half a century, a Coptic Christian hearse with an elaborate cross on its roof spun its wheels noisily in the mud near the entrance to this town of 22,000 about 200 miles south of Cairo.

Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Sedki was greeted with shouted demands as he toured seven ruined villages along the southern Nile Valley. The worst site was this peaceful farming town, whose center was turned into charred ruins when an almost apocalyptic wall of floodwater topped with flaming fuel swept through hundreds of homes at dawn on Wednesday.

Date palms and cacti stood blackened and bent while burned animals--some still gasping and dying after drinking the fuel-poisoned water--lay prostrate in the streets. The bony heads of human corpses peeked from their coffins in the water-ravaged cemetery next to the church. In the heart of the eerily empty neighborhood nearest the fuel depot, there was not even the sound of mourning, because there were few survivors.

"Up until now, I can say we have not talked to a single person who came to us and said, 'I was there, and I got up and ran,' " said Mohammed Abdel Mohsen Saleh, head of the local governing council.

The few survivors told of being wakened by a wave of neck-deep water that swept through their homes then burst into flames when a chain of railroad cars carrying fuel overturned on a bridge spanning the floodwaters and ignited. The train's explosion blew up at least two nearby fuel storage tanks and sent burning gas churning into the town with the floodwaters.

Every home for several blocks was set ablaze, along with the local church, a mosque and an animal-feed factory.

"I was sleeping in the house when the water started coming. The water took us, and we went under, but I stood up and grabbed my wife and my child and pushed them over the wall. The water kept hitting, and all we could feel was the fire behind us as we ran," said Mohammed Ahmed Abbas, 53, whose family escaped safely.

"The fire was in the water. We would throw water on it, and the flames would rise higher. I've never seen anything like it in my life," he said. "As we were running out of here, we weren't thinking, we were flying. The human being thinks only of surviving in these cases."

Abbas spent the morning Thursday sitting opposite the blackened hulk of his house, staring alternately at the house and at the charred remains of his car. "I'm watching my house and my car. What else is there to do?" he said. He held his arm out to sweep the surrounding neighborhood. "Down here, as far as you can see, everybody's dead."

Down the road, 35-year-old Zaynab Hussein told of rescuing six of her sons and daughters but having to abandon a 3-year-old son to the floodwaters.

"He was sleeping in his room. His father tried to reach him, but he found the water up to his throat and just couldn't go," she said tonelessly, standing atop the rubble that was once her home. "I'm just waiting. We don't have another place to go."

Next door, her neighbor Mohammed Rizk sat on a wooden stool, the only piece of furniture left intact in his home. He stared silently at the ruins until approached by visitors.

"I didn't lose a little. I lost everything, as you can see from the scenery," he said. His cousin, Atef Abdel Ati, said some family members were saved by pulling children out of the water and throwing ropes and lines to adults struggling in the fiery swirls.

"There are still about 60 people from this area whose bodies were just taken away, and they still haven't reached them," Ati said.

Government officials said there were still two entire neighborhoods of Durunka that had not yet been searched, making it likely that the death toll would climb.

Saleh, the local governing council chief, said the petroleum cooperative that took over the fuel depot from the army a few years ago had been repeatedly ordered to move it away from the populated area but had delayed the move because of the expense.

"They've been notified by the military advisers, the police department, the fire department. They did not respond due to the high cost of moving it," he said. The railroad's failure to include flood draining below its bridges at the depot was the second cause of the disaster, Saleh said, since the bridges collapsed when floodwaters rushed in off the nearby mountainside.

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