Gorbachev Urges On Rescuers : Visits Armenia, Orders Redoubling of Search Efforts

Times Staff Writer

Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, visiting northern Armenia where a devastating earthquake killed tens of thousands, ordered redoubled efforts Saturday to rescue victims still trapped in the rubble.

“The main goal now is to save everyone who can still be saved,” Gorbachev said as he inspected the vast damage at Leninakan, Armenia’s second-largest city. Eighty percent of the city of more than 200,000 inhabitants was destroyed in Wednesday’s magnitude 6.9 earthquake.

“It is impossible to express with words what has happened here in Leninakan,” Gorbachev said, according to a Soviet television news report from the city. “The whole country grieves with you.”

Crowds of Weeping Women


Gorbachev, who cut short a visit to the United States and returned to Moscow on Friday to oversee the rescue effort, was met by crowds of weeping women as he toured Leninakan with his wife, Raisa. Both appeared grim as they surveyed the devastation.

Rescue workers called for more cranes, bulldozers and other heavy lifting equipment as Gorbachev, along with Premier Nikolai I. Ryzhkov and Defense Minister Dmitry T. Yazov, walked through the debris-littered streets.

“We need machinery, first and foremost!” one man shouted to Gorbachev. “We don’t have enough powerful cranes!”

More than 500 medium and large cranes, gathered from around the country, are being flown and driven to the area in a massive mobilization of the country’s resources, but heavy fog and damaged roads slowed the flow of equipment Saturday.


Gorbachev, meeting with top government officials later in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, ordered that maximum effort be put immediately into the rescue operations.

“We must save all those we can still reach,” Gorbachev told the group, according to Radio Moscow. “We must do this, we simply must.”

More than 1,500 people, many of them badly injured, have been found alive and extracted from the rubble in the past two days, according to Yuri P. Chaplygin, a senior government spokesman.

“The priority task is rescue--the fastest search for survivors and the clearing of the rubble,” he told a press conference in Moscow. “But this still has to be done with the utmost care because moving one rock, one piece of concrete can cause others to fall and crush people who may be trapped beneath. It is agonizing work.”


Paul Wooster, a member of a British search-and-rescue team that worked in Mexico and El Salvador after earthquakes in those countries, said in Yerevan: “Every hour is vital. Realistically, the longest we can expect people to survive under the rubble is four to five days, though a great deal depends on local conditions.”

A French search-and-rescue team, using dogs and infrared equipment to detect trapped survivors, pulled 60 people from collapsed buildings in Leninakan overnight Friday.

Only 5 Houses Standing

And in Spitak, a town of nearly 55,000 where only five houses are said to be standing, rescue workers--hearing the faint sobs of a child--dug through the debris Saturday to rescue a 4-year-old girl, the only apparent survivor of a family of 11.


“Spitak won’t be restored because there is nothing left to restore,” Chaplygin said “A new city will be built on the same spot.”

Tanya Kezorkian, an Armenian-American studying in Yerevan who had gone with other students to Leninakan to help search for survivors, told a small group of Western reporters flown to Yerevan by the government on Saturday of slow, often chaotic and poorly managed rescue efforts.

“In four hours, they took four people,” she said, recounting how volunteers picked through the rubble of an eight-story computer institute that had been completely leveled by the quake. “But they said there were 250 other people still there. That’s the pattern.”

Another American student, Stella Gregorian, told reporters that rescuers would stop at buildings and listen for cries for help from beneath the debris. “If they heard no voices, they go on to a place where they can,” she said. “There are countless, countless people underneath these buildings that they can’t get to. But it’s a desperate race with time.”


Special Politburo Commission

Kezorkian’s criticism was echoed by others, including some from the special Politburo commission overseeing the rescue and relief effort.

“Armenia produced tens of thousands of volunteers to rescue people,” the government newspaper Izvestia commented Saturday, “but because of some bad organization there are still unloaded airplanes at the airport with some of the most necessary equipment.”

Chaplygin, speaking for the Council of Ministers, acknowledged considerable problems at the initial stage.


“There was bad organization at the beginning because people in the area were in a state of shock,” he said. “The people still alive were naturally more concerned with finding their next of kin and with burying the dead. Only when the central government stepped in could everything that is required be organized.”

Izvestia said that it was unfortunate that the 169-member French team, which has now been joined by British, Italian and Swiss search-and-rescue specialists, had not arrived earlier in Leninakan.

“If only we ourselves had specially equipped and trained rescue teams,” Izvestia said. “We must say that real organization at a good professional level is lacking.”

Gorbachev approached a French rescue volunteer and thanked him “for your desire to help our people in this hour of calamity.”


The first incomplete estimate of casualties by central government officials put the number of dead in the earthquake at 40,000 to 45,000. Nearly 7,000 people have been hospitalized, and more than half a million are homeless.

But Valentin M. Nikiforov, a deputy foreign minister, told reporters here Saturday that the death toll was a very preliminary figure based on the bodies recovered so far and that the government is still trying to gather accurate figures on the casualties.

‘Every Hour Counts’

“For the moment, however, search-and-rescue efforts have the priority,” Nikiforov added. “For them, every hour counts.”


Officials at the Armenian news agency Armenpress, reporting that entire classrooms of schoolchildren had been crushed to death Wednesday during their morning lessons and that whole neighborhoods had been leveled, had estimated that the death toll could be as high as 100,000.

On Saturday, priests at the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Echmiadzin near Yerevan, assessing reports from parishes in the region, also said that they expect the toll to reach 100,000.

“We have some churches where 90% of the people are dead or missing without a trace,” one priest said by telephone. “There are others where they are now burying 300, 400 and even 500 people. The loss of life has been huge.”

In an image that summed up the scope of the tragedy even more poignantly than the photos of the vast physical damage, Soviet television Saturday evening showed hundreds of caskets, piled 10 high, awaiting burial in Leninakan. In an outlying village, bodies wrapped only in blankets were being carried to the local cemetery.


A man, sobbing hysterically and barely able to walk, was being led away from the cemetery. “How many people we’ve seen in this condition in the past few days!” a television correspondent commented.

Medical Airlift

Medicine, food, tents, clothing and other equipment is being airlifted into Yerevan and Leninakan in a massive relief effort organized by Premier Ryzhkov and other members of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo.

“It is like a war front, a vast war front,” Yevgeny I. Chazov, the Soviet health minister, said on Radio Moscow. “That’s the scale of the destruction, that’s the scale of the casualties and that’s the scale of the effort required from us.”


More than 500 of the country’s top physicians and surgeons, many of them trauma specialists, have been sent to Yerevan, 200 medical teams are combing the countryside where many injured have been found and 500 military doctors are manning field hospitals.

With the destruction of virtually every hospital and clinic in the region, Nikiforov said there is an urgent need for medical equipment from abroad. The Soviet Union is also appealing, he said, for drugs and other medical supplies, including disposable syringes, that could be airlifted to the region.

“This is very important--it is the main need we have now,” he told a press conference. “We would be very grateful for international assistance on this.”

Enough Medical Personnel


Although Soviet officials said they have sufficient medical personnel on the scene, they said foreign specialists in treating the “crush syndrome” are urgently needed to work in Yerevan and at other medical centers, including Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, where survivors are being taken for treatment. Specialists in treating burns and in the operation of artificial kidney equipment are also being sought abroad.

Thirteen special international flights, including the first from the United States, were to land at Yerevan on Saturday, bringing medical supplies and equipment; five had come in on Friday. Fifty other international flights brought relief supplies to Moscow for transshipment to Armenia on smaller aircraft.

The Soviet air force has assigned 80 large transport planes to ferry in medicines, food and other supplies, according to Soviet officials, and planes are landing at Leninakan airport at the rate of 180 a day.

Special trains carrying fuel and other supplies are being prepared.