1,000 Feared Dead in Soviet Asian Quake, Mudslides
Rescuers worked feverishly Monday, but with little hope of finding survivors, after the second major earthquake in less than two months jolted the south of the Soviet Union, triggering a mudslide that buried parts of two villages and an estimated 1,000 people under a 50-foot layer of earth and rock.
Officials stressed that the casualty toll was preliminary since the disaster had wiped out roads, bridges, power and telephone lines, making it impossible to reach several other villages in the mountainous area of Tadzhikistan. At one point Monday, Radio Moscow put the death toll at 1,415.
Tass, the official Soviet news agency, said that at its epicenter, the tremor measured 7 on the 12-point Soviet scale, the rough equivalent of a magnitude 5.4 quake by Western measurements.
Last month’s devastating earthquake that killed at least 25,000 people in Soviet Armenia, near the Turkish border, registered 10 on the Soviet scale, or magnitude 6.9.
That giant quake also left 500,000 people homeless. And officials in the Armenian capital of Yerevan revealed Monday that, based on geologic phenomena that could “portend a dangerous release of energy accumulated in the Earth’s crust,” the population has been warned about possible new shocks to come.
Tass said the latest temblor was centered 20 to 30 miles southwest of Dushanbe, capital of the Central Asian Soviet republic of Tadzhikistan.
“Cries and wails can be heard everywhere,” the news agency reported in a dispatch from the area. “Some are bemoaning and burying their relatives and near ones, while others are trying to find the few survivors beneath the thick layer of sand and clay.”
State television showed film Monday evening of dozens of local men dodging the bucket of a heavy bulldozer as they tried with picks and shovels to help dig through the fast-drying mud.
Others dressed in traditional, calf-length padded robes and square, embroidered skullcaps carried away a body in what appeared to be a funeral procession.
State television reported only 104 people being treated in hospitals more than 18 hours after the quake. Most of those were apparently injured when their adobe houses and other buildings collapsed from the quake.
Those in the path of the giant mudslides apparently had little hope. Novosti News Agency correspondent Rima Alekseeva said in a telephone interview from Dushanbe that fewer than 10 people had been pulled alive from the mud by Monday afternoon, and they were lucky to have been at the outer edge of the devastation.
The worst hit was reportedly the village of Sharora, where at least 100 of 150 homes were completely or partially buried by a murky wall of mud and debris measuring more than a mile across at its widest point.
The village had grown up around an experimental farm, according to the government newspaper Izvestia, and it butted up against a high earthen mound. “Rains and wet snow, falling almost incessantly in the last weeks, significantly weakened the soil,” the newspaper said. And when the quake struck at about 5 a.m. local time Monday, the earth gave way.
In the Tadzhikistan village of Okuli-olo, Tass quoted Hairrulo Yuldashev, head of the local cooperative farm, as saying that 70 homes had been demolished by Monday’s quake. State television film from the settlement showed adobe-type, one- and two-story buildings that looked as if they had been crushed like cookies in some giant, unseen hand.
Panels of corrugated metal that had once been roofs lay scattered like a dropped deck of playing cards. The gnarled roots of a large tree swept along by a mudslide protruded grotesquely from the dirt and rubble.
“The natural calamity has also battered several other villages of the district,” Tass reported. “The number of killed was estimated at 1,000 by the close of the day, but this is a preliminary figure as yet. Rescue work is being continued and distant mountain villages have not been checked yet.”
The disaster also killed “thousands of head of publicly owned cattle,” Tass said, and buried “thousands of hectares of fertile plow-land.”
Izvestia quoted local officials as saying rescue operations began within two hours of Monday’s earthquake and that military units and teams of doctors, some from as far away as Moscow, were taking part. Heavy excavators, bulldozers and cranes were rushed to the scene from nearby Dushanbe.
Tass said that 35 special medical brigades were sent from Dushanbe to the disaster area within hours of the quake. A group of specialists also set off from several Moscow institutes and others were standing by, it said.
One village jolted by the quake but apparently not badly damaged was Nurek, home to one of the world’s highest dams, a 984-foot-tall structure filled with compressed clay. The dam, completed in 1980, is almost a mile thick at its base and was built especially to withstand strong earthquakes. There was no indication that it was damaged.
Novosti correspondent Alekseeva said that officials in Dushanbe saw no reason at this point to seek international relief, although both France and West Germany were reported by Tass to have offered assistance.
In Washington, Soviet Ambassador Yuri V. Dubinin, after a meeting with acting Secretary of State Michael H. Armacost, said the United States has offered to help and that he would cable Moscow asking if the assistance was needed.
In the much larger Armenian earthquake, which felled multistory apartment blocks, a lack of heavy equipment hampered relief efforts and is believed to have resulted in the deaths of untold numbers of victims who might have survived had rescuers been able to clear away the rubble fast enough to reach them.