Pakistani quake death toll nears 40,000

Bad weather may continue to disrupt relief effort to 2 million homeless victims.

quake children 298 (photo credit: AP)
quake children 298
(photo credit: AP)
The death toll in Pakistan's devastating earthquake rose to nearly 40,000 on Saturday, while rains and cold compounded the misery of millions of homeless victims and briefly grounded relief flights a week after the disaster. Thunderstorms and a cold wave were forecast for the next two days, which could disrupt efforts to help an estimated 2 million people lacking shelter ahead of the harsh Himalayan winter. Downpours earlier in the week grounded helicopters and stopped trucks loaded with relief supplies. Eye of the Storm: Local coverage of earthquake >> Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan said the death toll from the Oct. 8 temblor had risen to 38,000 with 62,000 others injured. More than 1,350 other people have died in neighboring India. The official toll previously stood at 25,000, but according to army sources, rose sharply because more bodies have been pulled from the rubble of fallen buildings in recent days. Senior officials had already privately estimated that between 35,000 and 40,000 were dead. At 8:51 a.m., thousands of Muslims gathered at Islamabad's towering Faisal mosque for special prayers for the dead - exactly a week after the temblor. Prayer leader Qari Nauman Ahmad urged people to donate what they could to quake victims and seek God's forgiveness, saying continuing aftershocks were a sign that God was not happy. Early Saturday, a magnitude-5 aftershock struck the quake-hit zone, but there were no immediate reports of damage or further injury. There have been more than 500 aftershocks over the past week. Rescue workers abandoned the official search Friday for survivors trapped in the rubble, though individual efforts continued, with an 18-month-old girl reportedly pulled out alive from the ruins of her home. A doctor, Mazhar Hussain, told GEO television and the British Broadcasting Corp. that his rescue team had pulled the toddler, unconscious but alive, from under the door of her collapsed house, which had protected her. Her mother and two brothers were found dead nearby, but her father survived. "Her right hand is broken and she has a fracture in her left leg," the doctor said on GEO, speaking from Balimang in North-West Frontier Province, where the girl was found. Four helicopters, two from the International Red Cross and two from the Pakistan army, landed in the devastated Kashmiri city of Muzaffarabad on Saturday morning, and another army spokesman Maj. Farooq Nasir said the relief operation was on but could change with the weather. More delays could be catastrophic. Seven days after the magnitude-7.6 quake, many outlying villages have still seen no aid. UNICEF warned that thousands of children are at risk of death from cold, malnutrition and disease. Jan Egeland, the UN undersecretary-general and emergency relief coordinator, said he feared bottlenecks of relief supplies. "If we don't work together, we will become a disaster within a disaster," he said. He said it would take billions of dollars and "five to 10 years" to rebuild. Gary Walker, spokesman for Plan, a humanitarian organization working around the northern town of Balakot, estimated that about 100,000 people in at least 50 surrounding communities urgently needed shelter. He said some donated tents were leaking and distribution was the main problem. "We haven't even gone up in the mountains yet," Walker said. A train carrying relief goods donated by neighboring India for the victims of earthquake in Pakistan arrived in the eastern city of Lahore late Friday - the latest gesture of friendship between the erstwhile enemies. India has also suffered more than 1,350 deaths in the quake. The aid included 12 tons of medicine, five tons of plastic sheets, 5,000 blankets and 370 tents. It was the second consignment of humanitarian aid from India, following relief goods sent earlier by plane. Most of Pakistan's deaths were in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir, where snow has started to fall in some areas. The country's relief commissioner, Maj. Gen. Farooq Ahmad Khan, said Pakistan expected to get 2 million blankets and 100,000 large tents before the onset of winter. He said 200,000 houses had been destroyed. High winds at the army airfield outside of Islamabad and a combination of wind and rain in Kashmir grounded helicopters for about an hour and a half Saturday morning, said US Marine Maj. Jeff Sammons. "We got one mission out this morning before the weather hit, but then we had about a 90 minute delay," Sammons said. "Right now our flights are going back up as scheduled except to the Balakot area." Flights to Balakot, where low cloud cover was impeding visibility, were expected in the early afternoon, he said. The US military has deployed 13 helicopters to Pakistan, and has begun dropping relief supplies by air from C-130 transport planes. Germany and Afghanistan have also contributed helicopters. The choppers ship out supplies and bring back injured people - many suffering infected wounds that haven't been properly treated for a week. Dozens of countries have donated money and aid. The United Nations on Friday increased its emergency appeal to nearly US$312 million. It said that helicopters, heavy lifting equipment, winterized tents, field hospitals and medicine are still desperately needed.