Rescue teams dig out bodies from quake that killed 220 in Iran

Monday, June 24th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHANGOOREH, Iran (AP) _ As rescue workers searched for bodies from Iran's devastating earthquake on Monday, Mohammad Taheri followed them, beating his head and chest in grief.

``Mother, where are you? Why are you buried in the dirt?'' he cried. When rescue crews and dogs found her body, it was more than Taheri, 40, could bear. He fainted.

Workers moving through Changooreh, among the hardest hit of the villages destroyed by Saturday's magnitude-6 earthquake, said they had dug up at least 140 bodies from the debris by early Monday. In all, the earthquake flattened some 100 remote villages and killed 220 people.

Only one person remained missing in Changooreh and was believed dead, rescue workers said. Villagers sifted through the debris of their homes, every once in a while digging out a kettle, a broken radio or other possession.

``This looks like a scene from a WWII movie,'' said rescue worker Majid Elahi as he surveyed the destruction from atop a mound of brick and mud that was once a home.

State radio put the toll at 220 dead and 1,300 injured, saying the latest toll was based on reports by rescue teams on the ground. Earlier estimates had been as high as 500.

The quake struck at 7:30 a.m. when most people were in their homes of brick, stone or mud. The quake, whose epicenter was in the Qazvin provincial town of Bou'in-Zahra, left thousands homeless.

In Changooreh, 150 miles west of Tehran, only two of the village's 100 houses remained intact.

In Abdareh, a village near Changooreh that was also hit hard, the quake toppled a mosque, demolished 40 homes and killed at least 20 people.

The dead there were buried at a cemetery overlooking the village as survivors huddled in groups, most covered in dust and dazed with grief. Men, women and children wailed as they placed the dead in rows of graves made by bulldozers.

Zahra Mehri, 38, said she came to Changooreh from Tehran to discover that 15 family members had been killed, including her mother.

``We are still too shocked to understand what happened,'' said Mehri, whose grandmother's body still has not been found. Her father, brother and sister were hospitalized with serious injuries.

When Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari arrived in Changooreh for a tour on Sunday, a young man stricken with the grief at losing his whole family stopped the minister, hurled insults, then threw stones that broke the windows of an ambulance parked nearby.

Lari, his bodyguards standing nearby, talked to the man and calmed him down.

The quake hit the provinces of Gilan, Tehran, Kurdestan, Qazvin, Zanjan and Hamedan and was followed by several aftershocks, the state news agency said. It was felt in Tehran _ Iran's capital _ but there were no reports of damage there.

Major earthquakes are not uncommon in Iran, which lies on a major seismic line. Moderate tremors are reported in various parts of the country almost daily.

Since 1997, more than 41,000 people have been killed in three major earthquakes. In the Qazvin area, a 1963 earthquake killed 12,225 people.

The Iranian government declared three days of mourning in the quake-struck provinces and established a bank account for donations from the public.

``From today we have to think of reconstruction during the summer, before it gets cold in the winter,'' Lari said on a tour of another village, Qanuraeh.

The United Nations has offered help. Pope John Paul II sent his prayers to the victims and called for a ``generous'' international response. Germany offered $485,000 in relief money.

President Bush offered condolences Saturday to ``the families of the many victims in the cities and villages affected by this tragic event.''

Iran and the United States have no diplomatic ties. Iran has said it will accept U.S. aid only from non-government organizations.