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Rescuers: Grim race against time

International rescue teams are losing hope of finding survivors.
International rescue teams are losing hope of finding survivors.

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Rescuers say the chances are slim for finding more survivors of Iran's earthquake.
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BAM, Iran (Reuters) -- Urged on by desperate Iranians, Tagin Karin's Algerian rescue team clambered over the huge pile of bricks that was once a hotel in Bam, sending their sniffer dogs roaming eagerly over the rubble.

"Move back," one Algerian worker in bright red helmet and blue overalls asked onlookers, clearing an unchecked area.

In a burst of activity, the rescuers scrabbled at one side of the mound of masonry -- but hopes of finding a survivor were dashed when first the hand, then the body emerged of a man still wrapped in the blanket in which he slept when the earthquake brought the building crashing down early last Friday.

Some in the crowd wept quietly.

"It depends on God if somebody lives after these days... Until you find a dead body, you have hope," 30-year-old Iranian construction worker Abbas Ruknabad said gloomily.

Tahereh Taherian, a 45-year-old housewife, said she had lost 60 family members in the quake. "God is testing us," she said. "I'm thanking God because one of our sons has been left alive."

On Monday, Iranians clung to dwindling hopes that survivors might still be dug out from the remains of this devastated city, where officials say at least 20,000 died, 30,000 were injured and 70 percent of the buildings were destroyed.

Iran's official news agency reported one child pulled alive from the rubble, protected in the arms of her dying mother -- one of about 2,000 survivors it said had been pulled from the wreckage of the city.

But international rescue workers, experienced in quake zones like Algeria and Turkey, said the odds were stacked against finding more survivors.

When the brick buildings of Bam collapsed, they left choking dust and few air pockets, so there were fewer spaces where people could survive than in other quake zones where reinforced concrete was more common, rescuers said.

"The way buildings are built here makes it very unlikely that we will find people because of the bricks and dirt," said Karin, 33, whose team dragged dozens of survivors from the rubble after an Algerian quake in May.

In Bam, the Algerians have pulled out only the dead.

Most international teams work on the basis that people buried under quake rubble rarely survive for longer than about 100 hours -- in this case until Tuesday morning.

Elsewhere in the city a team of Portuguese medics, firefighters and dog handlers searched a home where residents said a party went on until early on Friday.

Medical team leader Nelson Pereira, 32, did not expect to find anyone alive. "It's one in a thousand," he said of the chances, but added: "It's our work and we must do it right."

Other volunteers dug with pick and shovel at the rubble of houses, many built of sun-dried mud bricks that crumbled into dust, choking those buried underneath.

"Normally, we say that after 50 hours the chances get very slim," said Austrian rescue worker Ulrike Winter, 37, though she said quake victims had survived 200 hours or more.

"Tomorrow morning, that's basically our time limit," she said as her group scoured the remains of a two-storey house.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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