Asia Pacific

Rescuers scramble to reach survivors as Pakistan quake toll climbs to at least 38

AFP-JIJI

Rescuers battled along badly damaged roads and combed through toppled buildings Wednesday to reach victims of an earthquake that killed at least 38 people and injured hundreds more in northeast Pakistan.

Authorities were still assessing the quake’s impact in villages around the city of Mirpur in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, but in some the immediate damage was evident.

After a night of heavy rain compounded the misery of survivors, hundreds gathered to attend the funerals of residents killed near Mirpur, about 130 km (80 miles) southeast of the capital, Islamabad.

“It was like doomsday for us. We lost a number of our near and dear ones,” Muhammad Azam told AFP at a funeral for a neighbor. “Our loved ones will never come back.”

The 5.2 magnitude quake was not as strong as several that have struck Pakistan over the years, but the epicenter was very shallow — which generally causes more damage.

Near Mirpur, a well-developed city known for its palatial residences, many roads were destroyed, while bridges, mobile phone towers and electricity poles were also badly damaged.

The village of Jatlan on the outskirts of Mirpur appeared to be one of the worst affected.

There, residents sifted through debris and assessed the damage, with large cracks defacing walls in the houses that still stood, and brick fences reduced to rubble.

“I lost everything,” said Abdullah Khan, whose three-bedroom home was flattened.

The Pakistan military continued to lead search and rescue operations, and the death toll continued to rise as authorities reached more remote villages to assess the damage.

Muhammad Tayyab Chaudhry, the top local official, said at least 37 people had been killed — 33 in Mirpur and four in the neigboring district of Bhimber.

Earlier, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Afzal of the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) said one person had also been killed in the nearby Punjabi city of Jhelum.

“Some 350 people were wounded, 80 of them critically,” he told a press conference.

Teams of doctors had arrived in the area, while the NDMA had also sent hundreds of tents, bottles of water and food rations.

Afzal said hundreds of houses had been damaged — 136 of them “completely” — while 14 km (9 miles) of road were “badly affected.” Engineers were rushing to make repairs.

He said the ambassadors of three countries had offered assistance, but that Pakistani authorities had the matter under control.

Information minister Firdous Ashiq Awan gave a higher injury toll of 500, and told reporters that survivors would be offered compensation.

Overnight showers turned already-damaged roads into muddy thoroughfares where livestock roamed freely.

In Mirpur, however, life was quickly returning to normal and most of the well-built structures in the city showed little sign of damage.

Mirpur owes its prosperity to thousands of former residents who migrated to Britain in the 1960s, but retained their links to the area — repatriating money to buy land and build plush homes. Many of its 450,000 residents are dual British-Pakistan nationals.

After the quake, local hospitals in the city swelled, however, with many patients suffering from multiple fractures.

“I was going to see a friend when the entire area shook with a bang and a huge wall crumbled over me,” Ali Badshah, a student, told AFP from a hospital in Mirpur where he was being treated for a broken leg.

The quake sent people in Lahore and Islamabad running into the streets, while tremors were also felt as far away as New Delhi.

Pakistan straddles part of the boundary where the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, making the country susceptible to earthquakes.

Pakistani geologists faulted the “poor construction of shanty houses in Jatlan” for some of the damage, as well as its location near a fault line and the shallowness of the quake.

“The building code is not followed in most areas,” said Pakistan’s chief meteorologist, Muhammad Riaz.

The country was hit by a 7.6 magnitude quake in 2005 that killed more than 73,000 people and left about 3.5 million homeless, mainly in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.