Rescue teams searched for survivors early today after a powerful earthquake killed hundreds of people, injured thousands more and crumbled an estimated 5,000 homes Saturday across a mountainous farming region of Iran west of Tehran.
Iran's official news agency put the death toll at 500, injuries at 2,000 and those made homeless at 25,000--but crews were just beginning to assess the damage, bodies were still being located, and hospitals in the region were swamped far beyond capacity with victims.
It will take time before anyone knows for certain the number of dead.
The quake struck in a region where most people live in houses made of mud, timber and plaster, materials that disintegrate in an earthquake.
"Inhabitants in the affected areas are horrified," said the Iranian news agency.
The earthquake struck about 7:30 a.m., had a preliminary magnitude of 6.3 and was centered in Qazvin province, 140 miles west of Tehran. It caused the greatest damage across an area known primarily for its seedless grapes, but also as a getaway for wealthy residents of the capital. Many local men already were tending to their vineyards when the earth shook. Many women, children and elderly were home--and made up most of the victims.
"All I could see was trees and dirt. There was 100% destruction of the houses," said Kamyar Entezami, a 22-year-old photography student in the village of Changoureh. "I saw 40 bodies, a lot of them children."
Based on eyewitness accounts, the situation in Changoureh appears to have been all too typical. In the small village of Esmailabad, 38 bodies had been recovered by late Saturday, indicating that one in nine members of the community was dead.
"I've lost everyone," wailed one survivor in Esmailabad as he poured dirt over his head in grief.
In Aliabad, another small village in the vicinity, two shepherds who had left their houses early in the morning appeared to be the only survivors, state television reported. Everyone else was presumed dead.
About 80 people were killed in Kisse-Jin village, Majid Shalviri, head of the Red Crescent Society in Qazvin, told the state news agency.
"The number of injured people is very high. Exact figures are still not available, but there will be many casualties," Shalviri said.
Iran sits atop one of the most earthquake-prone areas of the Earth, a seismically active region where three tectonic plates meet, rub against one another and collide. Tremors occur almost daily, although major quakes are infrequent. In 1990, a quake in northern Iran killed more than 40,000 people, injured 60,000 and left more than half a million homeless. One thousand villages were damaged or destroyed.
The quake that struck Saturday shattered tranquil villages that lie along a road linking two large cities, Hamadan and Qazvin. Officials said the epicenter was in the Bouynzahra district in Qazvin. A senior Qazvin government official said on state-run television that 177 bodies had been recovered there. But the quake could be felt across eight provinces, including Gilan, Kurdestan, Zanjan and Hamadan.
"The quake was felt as far away as the capital, where buildings swayed and glasses broke," said Borzou Daragahi, a Tehran-based journalist.
The Iranian Red Crescent Society said that nearly 100 villages were badly damaged or destroyed and that an estimated 5,000 houses were demolished. State television showed images of vast destruction, homes reduced to dust, survivors wailing over corpses.
"It is very sad to see the sights of ruined homes of the people of these villages," said Behrouzef Tashakor, a journalist from the village of Abdareh, one of the worst-hit areas. The quake toppled Abdareh's mosque, destroyed 40 homes and left at least 20 people dead. The only thing not damaged was the hilltop cemetery.
Some villages reported frustration with delays in the arrival of rescue workers. By nightfall Saturday, helicopters were ferrying teams of rescuers to the stricken region. Soldiers, civilians and other volunteers, often armed with no more than shovels and spades, were digging in search of survivors or bodies. Officials said that food and 2,500 tents had been delivered to the affected region.
There were several obstacles to the rescue effort. Although warm during the day, the villages grow frigid at night, making rescue work more difficult while threatening the health of the homeless as well as anyone alive but trapped. Another problem was the fear of aftershocks, which the Iranian news agency said could continue for up to two weeks. The news service said there had been many in the hours after the quake.
Gary Oshea of International Rescue participated in the rescue effort after quakes hit Iran in 1990 and 1997. In an interview with the BBC on Saturday, he said that Iran does not have high-tech equipment, or even sniffer dogs, to help in the effort. He also said that the religious leadership is often reluctant to bring in help.
"I think that it is going to be the ideal opportunity over the next hours to pull survivors out alive," Oshea told the BBC. "Bearing in mind from my experience 10 years ago, the traditional build of the buildings are a key cause of death. However, in 1990, they did pull some people out after 21 days--so it's a bit hit-and-miss at the moment."
The shudder felt in Tehran also renewed concerns about a city of an estimated 20 million that rests over a series of seismic faults. This quake struck in a relatively sparsely populated area. But some Iranian experts have warned that Tehran could be hit too.
The Tehran skyline boasts many tall new condominiums, and with demand for swanky Western-style housing on the rise, developers are looking to build more skyscrapers. This has led to warnings from seismologists who fear that a disaster could be in the offing if shaking occurs beneath the capital.
President Mohammad Khatami issued a condolence message to the nation, and three days of mourning have been declared in the provinces, state television said.
Special correspondent Haleh Anvari in Tehran contributed to this report.