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Earthquake in South Asia

Rain Adds to Quake Victims' Misery

A powerful storm grounds relief flights in Pakistan, where the death toll is at 23,000.

October 12, 2005|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan — Torrential rain and hail slowed relief efforts Tuesday near ground zero of last weekend's massive earthquake as hundreds of injured survivors continued to stream into makeshift hospitals in devastated cities.

The afternoon storm that rolled across Kashmir's towering Hindu Kush mountains grounded relief flights into the region and threatened to set off new landslides and collapse buildings not leveled by Saturday's magnitude 7.6 temblor.

In the northern Pakistani city of Mansehra, the deluge flooded tents that had been used for surgeries and forced stretcher-bearers to slog through soupy mud with the injured, including several girls in torn school uniforms.

The girls were among 40 students reported rescued in nearby Balakot after being trapped beneath the rubble of their schools for more than three days. Most of the hungry, dehydrated children would need to have limbs amputated because gangrene had set in while they waited to be rescued, doctors said.

The bodies of 60 students were pulled from the ruins of the Shaheen Foundation School on Monday night, according to reports from Balakot, a once-picturesque holiday town nestled in a mountain valley.

Pakistan's confirmed death toll reached 23,000 on Tuesday, with more than 50,000 people injured, the Interior Ministry said. United Nations officials estimate that more than 2.5 million people were left homeless by the quake.

In India, 1,400 people have been confirmed dead and 4,300 are injured. Soldiers in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir found the bodies of 60 road workers Tuesday on a bus that had been buried in an avalanche triggered by the quake.

India's army is heading the rescue and relief effort in the country's portion of Kashmir. Many Kashmiris there, like those on the Pakistani side, complained that help was coming too slowly.

Amir Ali, 35, criticized the territory's civilian authorities after the army airlifted him to safety from a village 500 yards from the Pakistani border.

"We have been sleeping in the open for three nights now," he said. "We immediately need tents and blankets or else our children -- most of whom are already injured -- will perish in the cold."

Yasin Malik, a separatist leader and chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, said the territory's administration "had completely collapsed, so much so that in some of the mountainous areas, even children have been going without water."

The roads into northern Pakistan's devastated cities, including Mansehra, Balakot and Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, were clogged Tuesday with hundreds of trucks packed with food, clothing and blankets provided by Pakistani charities. Foreign relief and rescue teams from countries including Britain, France, Japan and China are joining in the effort. At least eight U.S. military helicopters are participating, but the bulk of the food, medicine and other emergency aid that has reached the northern cities has been delivered by Pakistani organizations.

Eager to help survivors who had been waiting three days, many ordinary Pakistanis filled up their cars with supplies and headed north. U.S. military helicopters were able to evacuate several people from Muzaffarabad early Tuesday, but the storm later grounded most relief flights.

Thousands of stunned survivors continued to scavenge through the ruins of Muzaffarabad or struggled to get their hands on supplies tossed from the backs of trucks. Many residents and aid workers wore surgical masks or pieces of cloth tied over their noses and mouths to mask the stench of decomposing bodies.

The powerful thunderstorm turned daylight into twilight, broken by flashes of lightning, and forced thousands to seek shelter next to unstable buildings.

When the dark clouds burst, the storm lashed what remained of the city with heavy rain and pea-sized hail. The deluge sent rivulets down mountainsides, where huge boulders and jagged rocks had been loosened by the quake and numerous aftershocks.

During the downpour, a building collapsed at the Ayub Medical Complex in Abbottabad, a key front-line trauma center where thousands of survivors were camped in tents.

In nearby Mansehra, employees at the badly damaged district hospital scrambled to continue treating patients, more than 4,000 of whom were brought in Monday alone, said Dr. Rajesh Jesrani.

Most victims were carried from trucks and ambulances on wood-frame beds strung with rope, which were hoisted onto the shoulders of stretcher-bearers.

The bearers hurried the injured through the muck to a crowded emergency ward, then picked up other patients to be transferred in open-backed trucks to hospitals to the south.

The Mansehra hospital, which treated more than 8,000 people in the first three days after the quake, is equipped for only basic surgeries.

So doctors have been able to do little more than try to ease the patients' pain with splints, casts and bandages before sending them to bigger cities, Jesrani said.

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