As Toll Rises in S. Asian Quake, Child's Cry Leads Father to Rescue

Villagers in Balakot, Pakistan, carry a survivor from a school that collapsed in Saturday's earthquake, which killed at least 20,000 people.
Villagers in Balakot, Pakistan, carry a survivor from a school that collapsed in Saturday's earthquake, which killed at least 20,000 people. (By B.k. Bangash -- Associated Press)
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 10, 2005

GARHI HABIBULLAH, Pakistan, Oct. 9 -- Zakar Hussain felt sick when he saw the school. Moments earlier, it had been a two-story stone-and-concrete building filled with hundreds of girls in blue-and-white uniforms. Now it was a heap of rubble, enveloped in a cloud of white dust. Already, he could hear the screams.

And somewhere inside was his daughter.

"Maria! Maria!" Hussain shouted, as hordes of other desperate parents converged on the scene. For nearly 30 minutes, he said, he frantically circled the flattened building, peering between broken concrete slabs with his weeping wife at his side.

Then, amid the cacophony of cries, Hussain heard a familiar voice. "Abu!" the 14-year-old girl shouted from somewhere beneath the wreckage. "Father!"

Strength and hope surging through his veins, the 50-year-old retired forester urged his daughter to stay calm, then grabbed a heavy stone and began pounding it against the concrete to make a hole.

So began one small, improvised rescue effort among thousands after the massive earthquake that rolled across part of South Asia on Saturday, killing at least 20,000 people, most of them in northern Pakistan, according to the latest official estimates. The 7.6-magnitude temblor, which officials described as the strongest on record in Pakistan, also caused damage and casualties in neighboring India and Afghanistan, but on a much smaller scale. Most of the destruction appeared to have been centered on or near Pakistan's side of the disputed Himalayan province of Kashmir.

With landslides blocking access to some stricken areas, and the government short of equipment and trained rescuers, Pakistan appealed for international financial and logistical support.

"Our helicopter resources are limited," Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, told the BBC. "We need massive cargo helicopter support."

By Sunday afternoon, as in many stricken areas, residents of this normally bustling market town 100 miles or so north of the capital, Islamabad, still had not received any outside help. They estimated that as many as 150 students were still trapped in the wreckage of the school, but with no heavy equipment, they had all but given up the search. The only piece of rescue gear in evidence was a decrepit-looking bulldozer, donated by a private contractor. Its tread had fallen off before it could move any rubble.

In the town of Balakot, about 10 miles north of here, as many as 250 students were thought to be still trapped -- or, more likely, entombed -- in the wreckage of another school, news agencies reported. Villagers worked with sledgehammers and their bare hands to free the bodies.

The damage was said to be heaviest in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, where the area's communications minister, Tariq Mohammed, told the Associated Press that "more than 30,000 people have died." That figure was considerably higher than other official estimates and could not be independently confirmed.

As the death toll mounted, international relief experts converged on Islamabad. The United States is sending eight helicopters and relief supplies, the State Department said. The United Nations and countries including Britain, Russia, China, Turkey, Japan and Germany have also offered assistance.

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