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Aftershock, Rumors Spark Panic in Pakistan's North

A 5.6 temblor slows rescue efforts. Officials say reaching the injured, cold and hungry in the Himalayan region is a race against time.

October 14, 2005|Carol J. Williams and Paul Watson | Times Staff Writers

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Rattled by a powerful aftershock and rumors later of a big temblor in the offing, Pakistanis fled damaged homes and hospitals in the middle of the night and flooded out of multistory buildings in the capital at midday Thursday.

The panic in the wake of last week's earthquake thwarted the rescue of a woman trapped in Muzaffarabad and later briefly paralyzed commerce in Islamabad's government district.

Amid the new confusion, the United Nations' top humanitarian official warned Thursday that the clock was running out for getting to survivors isolated after Saturday's magnitude 7.6 quake.

An expanded fleet of helicopters ferried tons of relief supplies to the north and evacuated hundreds more people in dire need of medical care. But with winter closing in on the Himalayan region, where as many as 40,000 people are believed to have died in the temblor, officials said it was a race against time to reach the injured, cold and hungry.

Truck convoys bringing tents and other supplies to the mountainous heart of the disaster area were augmented by hundreds of private cars as Pakistanis thronged the quake-damaged road to Muzaffarabad to bring clothes, medicine and food.

Jan Egeland, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, took an aerial tour of the devastated Kashmir region. He appealed for more helicopters to speed the delivery of supplies to remote highlands already gripped by near-freezing nights and the season's first snow flurries.

"Two million people are in need of new housing. They're facing extreme difficulty as it is just before winter. This is our worst nightmare," said Egeland, visibly moved by the magnitude of the disaster.

Bemoaning a dearth of aircraft to evacuate the injured, he said, "people are dying as we speak."

Egeland praised the response of the Pakistani government and of individuals, but he warned that the airlift of winter survival gear to the backward hinterlands would have to be stepped up at least threefold.

About 30 helicopters have been deployed as aerial lifelines to the north but more than 100 are needed, added Andrew MacLeod, spokesman for the U.N. disaster assistance and coordination team that accompanied Egeland on his tour.

One of the latest suspected casualties of the massive quake was a 22-year-old woman trapped in a collapsed house in Muzaffarabad, about 55 miles northeast of Islamabad, the capital. Rescue workers told news agencies that they had to break off efforts to reach her after a sharp aftershock at 1:25 a.m. shifted the pile of debris where they were working. By the time efforts resumed six hours later in daylight, sniffer dogs indicated that she had died. Witnesses told Associated Press that rescue workers wept at the news of their failure to save her.

"It was a very difficult decision to leave a living person, and I had a responsibility to my team," squad leader Steff Hopkins told AP, referring to the British, German and Turkish rescue workers. "It could have meant their death."

An army major in Muzaffarabad told reporters that the nation's rescue effort had been called off early today, but Azer Abas, a spokesman for the federal relief coordinator, said no such decision had been made.

Minutes later, there was an unconfirmed report from GEO TV that a 1 1/2 -year-old girl had been found alive in the rubble of a house in the Mansehra district.

The magnitude 5.6 aftershock caused chaos at the badly damaged main hospital in the city of Abbottabad, about 35 miles north of Islamabad. The facility had been receiving several hundred patients a day.

Hundreds of frightened patients and staff fled Abbottabad's Ayub Medical College hospital when the aftershock hit, leaving patients to fend for themselves, witnesses said.

Inside the hospital, where walls have gaping holes and long cracks, volunteer relief worker Naseem Wajahat stood bewildered, holding a tiny stillborn baby that an injured woman had delivered amid the chaos. He was waiting for someone to collect the body, wrapped in a dirty shirt. But as more patients returned inside, overwhelmed hospital staff were too busy trying to account for the living to deal with the dead infant.

The gripping fear instilled by Saturday's deadly earthquake was palpable in the reaction to the midday rumor of another coming tremor, which unleashed fresh chaos in the capital.

"We can't help ourselves. We are so scared after the earthquake," said Nusrat Khoshnood, embarrassed after rushing to grab her twin 6-year-olds from their school when she heard an earthquake had been predicted for 1 p.m. "I know you can't predict earthquakes. I don't know why I believed the rumor. It's just that we are all in trauma."

The director of the National Meteorological Office, Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, urged calm in a radio broadcast after thousands fled high-rises on the swift-traveling rumor. It took at least half an hour before most could be coaxed back to homes and offices.

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