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Death Toll Climbs to 10,000 As India Digs Out of Quake

By Molly Moore
The Washington Post

HYDERABAD, India

A powerful earthquake rocked India's southwestern heartland Thursday, flattening villages and turning large towns into graveyards of rubble. The death toll climbed to an estimated 10,000 people, according to state television.

Most of the victims were believed to have been killed in their sleep in the pre-dawn earthquake, the deadliest to hit India in 58 years, officials said. At least 10,000 people were injured and tens of thousands left homeless across a 140-mile swath, according to reports. The number of casualties could increase as army troops and relief workers reach remote areas and begin digging through wreckage.

The earthquake jolted the western state of Maharashtra at 3:56 a.m. (6:26 p.m. EDT Wednesday) with a force of 6.4 on the Richter scale, according to the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colo. "The tremors lasted four to five minutes," one survivor told the Press Trust of India, a state-run news agency. "When we tried to escape, entire houses began to fall on us. It was like a nightmare."

Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao ordered army relief operations on "war footing" to respond to the disaster in the remote, sugar-processing belt of India and authorized $3.3 million for relief and rescue operations. Offers of aid began pouring in from outside India, including from Pakistan, its longtime enemy, and Russia, in the midst of its own political turmoil.

The earthquake released five powerful aftershocks. While the most violent tremors shook the southern portion of Maharashtra, the rumbling was felt in India's commercial capital of Bombay, more than 100 miles to the northwest of the epicenter, and in seven surrounding states extending to Madras on India's southern tip.

In India's high-technology center of Bangalore in southern India, many residents reportedly rushed into the streets in panic in the minutes following the earthquake. No serious property damage or injuries were reported in any of the three major metropolitan areas.

A spokesman for India's meteorological bureau said the vibrations from the quake were so severe that some of the government's seismic recorders were damaged.

Television footage released by India's government-controlled national network showed entire villages had collapsed into grisly mounds of mud, concrete and boulders. Officials said rescue workers -- many using their bare hands -- had dug more than 3,500 bodies from the rubble of villages. Many villages were filled with the wails of residents praying for loved ones they could not find.

"The death toll is going up by the minute," said Praveen Pardesi, a senior government official in devastated Latur, a town of 500,000 people, who spoke to Agence France-Presse news agency by telephone.

Army troops and relief organizations began rushing tents, drinking water and medical supplies to the quake-stricken region, but relief efforts were hampered because heavy monsoon rains recently had washed out roads and bridges to some villages. Hospitals were jammed with casualties and doctors were pleading for blood donations, local police reported.

Medical authorities reportedly expressed concern about the possible spread of disease from contaminated drinking water and unburied human and animal carcasses. Indian authorities dispatched truckloads of firewood and gasoline to some villages for mass cremations, which already had begun late Thursday.

The earthquake cut off electrical power supplies and severed most telephone connections to the region.

In the town of Khilari near the epicenter, "not a single house is left standing," said an Indian journalist who reached the area late Thursday. Local officials estimated that 3,000 people were buried in the debris of Khilari, which had a population of about 15,000 people and was one of 49 villages reported to be ravaged by the earthquake.

Dr. Harsh Gupta, director of the National Geophysical Research Institute here in Hyderabad, about 120 miles from the epicenter, said that although the 6.4 reading on the Richter scale did not put the quake in the category of an extremely severe earthquake, the high death toll was the result of "people (having) built mud houses with stone rooftops of very flimsy construction" in a thickly populated region.

He said there is almost no "sedimentary layer" of earth in the relatively barren plains area to cushion the shock waves, allowing them to travel greater distances than those normally associated with an earthquake of this level.

While the area had experienced mild tremors in the last several years, it was not considered an earthquake-prone area. The region's most serious earthquake occurred in 1967, when more than 100 people died in a quake believed to have been caused by the operation of a massive dam, according to Gupta.

Thursday's quake was the first major tremor in India since an estimated 1,600 people were killed in the Himalayan foothills in 1991. Thursday's earthquake was the deadliest to strike the country since 1935, when 50,000 people were killed in the Quetta area of what is now north-central Pakistan. The previous year, 10,700 people were killed when an earthquake struck eastern India.