KAWAI, Pakistan — The big chopper hovered unsteadily above this earthquake-wounded village, the powerful turbulence from its rotors whipping the burkas and colorful scarves of exhausted residents crowded below.
Inside the lumbering aircraft, two members of a relief group waited anxiously to touch down atop a white 'X' that villagers had scrawled on a rural road broken by huge cracks and landslides.
The workers were planning to distribute blankets and high-energy biscuits to survivors of the magnitude 7.6 earthquake that rocked Pakistan early last month. Hundreds of residents in this isolated community of 1,300 families were killed in the quake, about 100 of them children. Now, the only way left to reach this village ringed by towering mountain peaks is a throw-of-the-dice ride in a craft usually reserved for combat troops, not relief workers: a Pakistani army helicopter.
"I just told myself that these pilots are in here too," said Pam Ogor, a Milwaukee family physician and a volunteer with Los Angeles-based Relief International, referring to two Pakistani officers. "They don't want this thing to go down either."
For aid workers, the disaster poses a deadly race against time: This Himalayan region is home to a dozen of the world's tallest mountain peaks, and as winter weather sets in, more than half a million quake survivors whose homes were destroyed by the temblor still await blankets and tents critical to their survival. In addition, 75,000 people scattered across 15,000 mountain villages continue to require medical attention.
At center stage of the disaster are the scores of military and civilian helicopters whose role thus far has proved essential but fraught with peril. The choppers are expensive and often dangerous to operate at such high altitudes. At the same time, relief agencies have complained that there are not enough of them to deliver adequate supplies before the first snows arrive in the coming weeks.
The only other way to ferry supplies to isolated survivors is by mules, trekking over treacherous mountain paths and washed-out, boulder-strewn roads. The airfield in the city of Muzaffarabad, capital of the Pakistani-held portion of Kashmir, is closest to the most deeply affected areas, but too small to accommodate most winged aircraft.
Pakistan's armed forces have several dozen choppers, but they have not been enough considering the scope of the disaster.
U.N. officials estimate that at least 73 helicopters donated by foreign nations and relief agencies are operating in Pakistan, with 47 more on the way.
Although the U.S., Japan, Britain, Germany, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates have contributed heavy-lift military helicopters, officials in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, who say the world has not grasped the severity of the situation, have called for more choppers from member nations.
The U.S. has earmarked at least 33, including a dozen Black Hawks and twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters, diverted from their bases in neighboring Afghanistan. But dozens of members of Congress have urged President Bush to send additional craft.
"These helicopters are expensive and often difficult to maneuver in these remote areas and we wouldn't have them here if we didn't critically need them," said Geoffrey Krassy, a U.S. diplomat who is working on earthquake relief at the embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. "They're a piece of equipment we can't do without if we're going to reach these survivors in time."
But traveling by helicopter can prove perilous. On Oct. 15, six Pakistani soldiers were killed when their Russian-made MI-17, buffeted by strong winds and rain, crashed while returning from an aid mission in Kashmir.
Several days later, a Swiss aid worker was decapitated when he backed into a rear rotor on a supply mission. Aid officials also worry about the safety of desperate villagers who rush the helicopters as they make precarious landings.
"These people don't realize that these big blades, even though they're invisible, are whirring around and can kill them instantly," Krassy said.
Yet, to help people in isolated areas, you first must reach them. And time is running out, said Caroline Upton, another volunteer with Relief International.
So Upton and other aid workers hitch rides on military helicopters to ferry supplies. But there's a catch: Priority goes to victims needing airlifts from mountain villages and those residents returning home after treatment.
Aid workers compete with one another for any room that is left. In an aircraft like a helicopter where weight is crucial to maintain stability in flight, supplies must often be left on the runway to avoid overloading.
On a bright Sunday morning in Mansehra, one of the most devastated towns in the hard-hit Kashmir region, Upton and Ogor arrived at a cricket stadium that had been converted into a makeshift landing field. They had trucked in 10 cases of biscuits and several large bales of blankets to distribute in Kawai.