In Cairo's Stench of Death, a Bittersweet Rescue : Earthquake: Man survived 82 hours buried alive in ruins of an apartment building. He saw his family members die, one by one.


An agricultural engineer who survived 82 hours under the rubble of a collapsed apartment building was rescued Friday as thousands left homeless by this week's earthquake began gathering in angry crowds around police and municipal buildings.

As huge crowds spilled into the streets from the city's mosques, officials appealed for calm. Religious leaders called for donations and pronounced martyrdom for the 519 known victims of the quake.

"This earthquake fell on us in the blink of an eye . . . but it gave us a very useful lesson: that there is no escape from God's fate," Sheik Abdel-Fatah Shaishai told thousands of the faithful gathered at the Mosque of Sayeda Zaynab, in a crowded district heavily damaged by the quake. "We ask God to have mercy on our victims, on our dead and those left alive. Give us patience and persistence. And God, please take your anger away from us."

Amid the praying and mourning, there was a moment of joy among the ruins of a suburban apartment building when a weak but healthy Aksam Sayed Ismail, 36, was pulled from a hole in the mountainous debris.

The bodies of his 4-year-old daughter, his Italian wife and his mother were pulled out from beside him, out of the concrete tomb that had once been their seventh-floor apartment.

"Under my eyes my mother breathed her last. Then my daughter, then my wife. Those were the worst moments imaginable for any human being," Ismail told rescuers as they pulled him from the debris shortly past midnight Friday.

As Ismail was lifted onto a stretcher, hundreds of spectators gathered in the floodlights around the collapsed building began shouting in elation, " Allahu akbar (God is great)."

Later in the day, Ismail was reunited with his sister, Elham Sayed Ismail, who had been rescued with her 3-year-old son from her apartment six floors above her brother's several hours after Monday's 3:10 p.m. earthquake. They were among the few survivors of a building from which more than 81 bodies already have been pulled.

Ismail told his doctors and rescuers that he and his family had been running for the door when the earthquake hit but were stopped when the door and part of the ceiling fell on top of them, wedging them to the floor with about a hand's width of breathing space above them.

The family held hands and talked for the first two days, he said.

"We found ourselves in a narrow, dark spot. We groped and realized that we were in the midst of debris--broken wood, stones and sand. My foot was stuck in the rubble," Ismail told his rescuers, his remarks reported by Egypt's official Middle East News Agency.

"I kept assuring my mother, wife and daughter that we shall survive, but deep in my heart, I had no hope. Every now and then, I heard the moans of victims coming from different directions. The moaning would trail off, then stop, meaning death had come."

After many hours under the debris, Ismail, a former soldier trained in Egypt's blistering deserts, began drinking his urine and appealed to his family to do the same. But they refused.

"My daughter cried out, 'I want a Pepsi, Daddy.' This was heart-rending, but what could I do? I was shattered by grief as she died crying. . . . Those three days felt like three years."

Ismail told authorities the last of his family died about 10 hours before he was rescued.

Hussein Salah, a civil defense captain leading the rescue effort, said workers digging through the rubble called up rescue dogs when they found clothing with fresh blood on it. The stench of rotting bodies was overpowering.

The dogs, which usually whine when they find corpses, "wagged their tails and barked with joy" when they sensed Ismail, said French rescue worker Eric Montandon. Soon the workers could hear a faint voice calling, "Help!"

They propped up the concrete above Ismail with wooden stakes, but it took about an hour's work to free his legs from a collapsed closet.

Ismail was found to have a fractured ankle and damaged circulation in the area around the fracture. He was scheduled to remain in intensive care for two days.

At the site of the 14-story collapsed building, workers loaded personal belongings sifted from the debris onto trucks: photograph albums, school textbooks, assorted pairs of pants, a woman's evening shoe, a briefcase containing $71,000 in cash.

But as government officials struggled to find housing for the thousands left homeless by the quake, announcing in the semiofficial newspaper El Ahram that up to 56,000 vacant apartments would be made available to the dislocated, frustration in the city's teeming quarters most damaged by the quake turned to anger.

Dozens of people began shouting and throwing rocks at government officials touring the neighborhood of Sayeda Zaynab on Thursday, and hundreds of people stormed a government office in the village of Ayat, on the outskirts of the city. Angry crowds milled around several police stations.

"I talked to the chairman of the municipality, and even the president was here yesterday, and I told them, 'How can you go to your bed and sleep while we're homeless?' " a middle-age woman shouted Friday on narrow Talun Street.

"Somebody said, 'Calm down, everything will be solved.' He gave us a telephone number, which turned out to be a wrong number. We tried to reach him, and there's no luck. Now, where do we sleep?"

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World