Tremor Mortis

6 minute read

Like a great many Indians, Mahesh Patel was at home last Friday morning at 8:45 watching the televised Republic Day parade of India’s armed forces. Suddenly, the TV set blacked out and his living room in Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, began to shake like a storm-tossed raft. Toward the end of the 45-second quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey says hit 7.9 on the Richter scale, Patel heard a violent snapping sound. He ran out just as a neighboring four-story house collapsed in a roiling cloud of dust. As their home crumbled, a few residents made desperate leaps to safety from balconies. ALSO IN TIMECOVER: Forecast 2001Wanna know what’s in store? Or are you afraid to look? Here are some clues to what’s aheadINDIA: The Ground Beneath Their FeetThe Subcontinent struggles to put the pieces back together as a powerful earthquake claims thousands of livesKASHMIR: In the Line of FireAfter decades of conflict, thousands of sons murdered and a long-standing drought of hope in the disputed region, India and Pakistan are starting a hesitant peace process Militant School: An exclusive look inside the training camps that mold young men into guerrilla martyrs for Islam Essay: Remembering one of the disappearedTHE PHILIPPINES: Behind the ThroneThe military played kingmaker for Arroyo. Is she beholden?CHINA: Keepers of the FlameA puzzling protest sparks discord in Falun Gong’s rank and fileINDONESIA: The Lord is with ThemAn apparition of Christ becomes a reflection of troubled timesTRAVEL WATCH: Masssaged and Masqued in the New Hawaii They were the lucky ones. Another resident, Girish Sanghani, managed to crawl free from the debris, but his wife Bhavna and their son were entombed under a pile of broken concrete slabs. Miraculously, Bhavna survived the initial collapse. Following her faint cries, Sanghani and rescue workers clawed a hole through the rubble, wide enough to pass down a lamp and a cup of teabut not large enough to liberate the woman. She is trapped in a fetal position cradling her child, said rescue worker Nishant Chidda. We believe the child is dead. Otherwise, she would’ve passed him out. Bhavna’s chances of surviving under tons of rubble diminished with each passing hour. A day after the earthquake jolted the subcontinentit was felt as far away as Nepal and Bangladeshthe cries of the trapped victims began to grow faint throughout western India. In Ahmedabad, distraught parents flocked to a school which imploded, trapping 39 children and several teachers inside. Rescue workers said that during the first wave of tremors, the children were herded into a stairwell. Then the walls came tumbling down. My only son is in there, wailed one woman. I know he’s still alive. But her hope dimmed every time firemen and volunteers extracted another tiny corpse from the site. Throughout the night, firemen could hear voices coming from within the mountainous rubble, but by morning there was only a numb, funereal silence. Elsewhere in Gujarat, 400 school children were buried alive while marching in a Republic Day parade.The final toll in the subcontinent’s worst earthquake in 50 years could rise to 15,000 dead. Another 33,000 were injured, according to Gujarat officials. Villages near the quake’s epicenter, a dry, barren region high above the Arabian Sea, were pulverized and all the more prostrate for their remoteness: help didn’t get through until 24 hours after the quake struck. Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city with a population of 3.6 million people, and Bhuj, a walled city of 150,000 near Ground Zero, were hit hardest. In Bhuj, over 90% of the buildings were sledge-hammered by the quake, including the town’s main hospital. Officials estimate 6,000 Bhuj residents were entombed. The survivors remained on the street, too scared to return home as 188 aftershocks followed in the succeeding 24 hours.Friday was Republic Day, India’s main national holiday, and in the capital of New Delhi, the traditionally dazzling parade was held with camel corps, bagpipers and helicopters showering marigold petals onto assembled dignitarieswhile Gujaratis were trying to dig out their friends and neighbors with bare hands. For most of that day, rescue attempts were undertaken entirely by survivors and volunteers. By nightfall, desperation was setting in: where were the relief workers, the rescue equipment, the cranes so essential to lifting the rubble and sifting for survivors? Complained Vinod Trivedi, 52, an insurance worker in Ahmedabad: Not even the Municipal Corporation has bothered to come. All of our work has been done without the help of heavy machinery. One exhausted volunteer from Mumbai said, Some things even the human spirit cannot move with just two hands. Predicted Patrick Fuller from the International Federation of the Red Cross, The chances of people coming out alive after the first 48 hours are fairly slim. When the Earth MovedDate Place Richter scale FatalitiesJan. 13, 2001 San Salvador 7.6 700Sep. 21, 1999 Taiwan 7.6 2,160Jan. 17, 1995 Kobe 7.2 6,430Oct. 17, 1989 San Francisco 6.9 100Aug. 1950 Assam state, India 8.5 532Feb. 2, 1556 Shaanxi, China ? 830,000Gujarat is one of India’s most earthquake-prone areas. But unlike in tremulous Tokyo or Los Angeles where newer structures are built to survive some seismic movement, state authorities in India are notorious for not enforcing building codes. As a result, many multistoried buildings either tumbled or split apart, turning apartments, schools and hospitals into mass graves. Those hospitals that remained standing were swamped with injured, and doctors were forced to operate in corridors crowded with corpses and the wounded.Once the magnitude of the catastrophe sunk in, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared a state of emergency. We will rebuild the broken homes, he pledged. We will resettle the shattered neighborhoods. And we will pray for those that died. As severe aftershocks rumbled throughout the weekend, five battalions of the Indian army were airlifted to Gujarat along with teams of doctors and surgeons. At last week’s end, Bhuj still remained cut off, with no electricity or telephones. Ahmedabad residents were camped in parks and on the sidewalks outside their damaged homes. In Pachchao, a village in the salt desert not far from the epicenter, Dawod Ismail Siddhi cried, There is nothing left between the sky and the earth any more. Everything has been demolished. His sister Banu knelt beside a rope cot bearing the corpses of her two children. Republic Day is an occasion for India to show off its prodigious military might. This year nature overshadowed it with an awesome display of its own destructive power. Reported by Rukmini Maria Callimachi/Ahmadabad and Meenakshi Ganguly/Mumbai

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