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Quake Rescue Anxiety Grows

Pakistan seeks large helicopters to move equipment into remote areas. The death toll nears 20,000, and many remain trapped.

October 10, 2005|Mubashir Zaidi, Paul Watson and Shankhadeep Choudhury | Special to The Times

BALAKOT, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf pleaded for international help Sunday to hurry rescue equipment and relief supplies to tens of thousands of earthquake victims in Pakistan, while desperate survivors begged for government aid that still had not arrived in large areas of the quake zone.

As the confirmed death toll neared 20,000 and threatened to grow, Musharraf asked the United States, Britain and other international donors to send heavy-lift helicopters, financial aid, medical supplies and tents following Saturday's magnitude 7.6 temblor. The Pentagon promised delivery today of eight military choppers from Afghanistan.

The helicopters, needed to get heavy equipment to remote areas where rescuers were working with little more than hand tools, may be too late for hundreds of children trapped in collapsed schools across northern Pakistan. The quake struck just after 8:50 a.m. Saturday, as classes were about to begin.

At the ruins of the Shaheen Private School in the devastated northern town of Balakot, survivors exhausted from hours of trying to unearth students by hand listened helplessly Sunday as trapped children pleaded for rescue and struggled to survive under the rubble. Residents waited amid corpses covered by battered sheets of corrugated tin roofing and complained bitterly about the lack of outside help.

"They are alive, but we do not have the expertise to get them out," said a dejected woman sitting on the school's roof, which lay across the rubble of walls shattered by the quake.

One resident said a child under the rubble had called out his own name, Khizer, for two hours. Then there was silence.

Residents feared that more than 1,000 children were trapped in the debris of Shaheen and two other schools in Balakot, which was flattened by the quake's force.

Several people in the town, about 70 miles north of Islamabad, the capital, cursed the government for not reaching the trapped people of Balakot in time to save more lives.

"All we could see for the whole day is just two military helicopters," said Sajid Hussain, a resident. "We whistled and waved to them, but they vanished."

The bodies of at least 400 children were recovered from two other destroyed schools in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, where Balakot is located. Rescuers had been able to pull dozens of children out alive from some of the collapsed schools.

Almost two days after the quake, the full scale of the disaster was still slowly unfolding. Military rescue and relief teams in Pakistan and India struggled to overcome bad weather, avalanches, cracked roads and bridges, and towering mountains to reach devastated areas.

Across the earthquake zone on Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people spent a chilly night in the open because their homes were damaged or because they feared deadly aftershocks. Severe shortages of food and water were reported.

"Affected people have no shelter, no drinking water, no first aid, and aid agencies have yet to start activities," said Najeeb Ahmad, who has worked with relief organizations in the town of Abbottabad, about 30 miles south of Balakot. "I slept in my car because of the continuous aftershocks."

The regional Ayub Medical Complex in Abbottabad was inundated with an estimated 1,000 patients, as doctors treated the injured in the hospital's outdoor compound. The town had been without power since the earthquake.

By Sunday afternoon, the confirmed toll in Pakistan was at least 19,136 dead and 42,397 injured, Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told reporters.

"It is such a horrendous situation that one cannot imagine," he said. "Casualties are increasing by the hour."

More than 465 people died in India and four in Afghanistan. The United Nations has estimated that more than 2.5 million people need shelter because of the extensive damage caused by the quake.

In response to the Pakistani pleas for help, the Pentagon announced Sunday that it would send five CH-47 Chinook helicopters and three UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and their crews from Afghanistan. The helicopters are scheduled to arrive today, and more aid could follow, the U.S. military said.

The Chinook is a big, twin-rotor, heavy-lift helicopter used to transport cargo, weapons and troops. The Black Hawk is a utility helicopter normally used for missions ranging from air assault to medical evacuation.

The Pentagon said that sending the helicopters and their crews would not undercut U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, where about 18,000 American troops are battling insurgents and supporting reconstruction efforts. The helicopters will be used on rescue, recovery and supply missions.

President Bush on Sunday invited the ranking Pakistani diplomat to the White House and spoke on the telephone with Musharraf, assuring him of U.S. support.

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