30,000 Feared Dead in Iran Quake

December 29, 2003

Bam, the ancient city in southeastern, Iran lies in ruins after an earthquake, measured locally at 6.3 on the Richter scale (the US Geological Survey measured it at 6.7), struck early Friday morning.

No official count of the dead, wounded and missing has been possible, as the utter devastation – 70 percent of the city and the surrounding area has been destroyed – continues to hamper rescue efforts. By Sunday morning there was little hope of finding further victims alive.

The BBC cited local authorities’ estimates that at least 22,000 have died, but indications are that the toll could eventually exceed 30,000. The number of those injured in the disaster is estimated at over 100,000. There are few reports available from outlying villages in the region, some of which have been totally destroyed.

Rescue teams, medical personnel and supplies are arriving from all over the world, including the U.S., which put aside political differences with Iran (at least temporarily) to help the quake’s victims. According to a BBC report Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Iran’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zarif, held direct telephone talks about humanitarian aid. “Given the urgency of the situation we deemed direct contact to be the most appropriate channel,” it quoted State Department spokesman Lou Fintor.

The quake is the deadliest since 1993 when about 10,000 villagers died in western and southern India. An earthquake measuring 6.3 killed 235 people in western Iran in June 2002. The BBC reported that, according to witnesses, “cemeteries in Bam were overflowing with fully clothed corpses and hundreds of bodies had been tipped into trenches hollowed out by mechanical diggers. Bam airport has been converted into a “sprawling, makeshift hospital and rubble-strewn pavements were lined with injured, some on intravenous drips.”

Reuters reported instances of looting and chaotic violence as vans “full of young men armed with pistols and Kalashnikovs” drove into Bam and stole Red Crescent tents. “There is no organization. Whoever is stronger takes the aid,” the report quoted local resident Mehdi Dehghani.

The ancient structures in Bam, including the famous citadel, are hundreds, often thousands, of years old, and were particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. Most were made of mudbrick or ordinary bricks, – i.e. very few were reinforced – which collapsed leaving no protected spaces where people might survive. The BBC reported that John Holland, of rescue team Rapid UK, described the scene from the air as looking like “about 80 percent of the buildings totally flattened.”

Bam dates back over 2000 years, and rose to prominence as a link along the medieval Silk Road between the Far East and Europe. Its heyday was in the 16th and 17th Centuries under Iran’s Safavid dynasty. The citadel, which has been heavily damaged, was believed to have been the largest mudbrick building in the world. The city was largely abandoned until 1953, when the government began restoring its historic buildings. In recent years it has been a popular tourist destination.

Given Bam’s remote location and the comparative isolation of Iran, insured losses are not expected to be significant. But the cost of rebuilding the city and the economic losses the quake has caused are enormous.

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