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Despite Dangers, Little Alternative to Bulldozers in Quake Rescue

October 18, 1992

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Some of the 72 people who died when an earthquake brought down a high-rise apartment building might have lived were it not for the noisy, slashing blades of bulldozer, experts and a survivor said Saturday.

But the only alternative - searching by hand through mountains of debris - would have taken so long that at least two and probably more of the 16 survivors would have died, the experts said.

Meanwhile, thousands of people left homeless by the quake Monday protested what they said was the government’s failure to provide relief. Police used tear gas to break up one Cairo demonstration.

One of the high-rise residents, Aksam Sayed Ismail, watched his mother, wife and 4-year-old daughter die during the 3 1/2 days he lay trapped in the rubble of the 14-story building, which collapsed when the quake hit Heliopolis, a northern Cairo suburb.

″We heard very well what officers, rescue workers and foreign experts were saying to one another,″ Ismail told the government’s Al Gomhuria newspaper after he was rescued Friday. ″I cried out for help, but no one heard us because of the noise the bulldozers were making.″

The 36-year-old agricultural engineer, who had lived on the building’s seventh floor, said he heard knocking sounds and signs of life near him in the dark until shortly before his rescue. Emergency crews apparently heard nothing because of the din outside, he said.

The six-day search at the building ended Saturday night, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported.

The earthquake measured 5.9 on the Richter scale. According to Prime Minister Atef Sedki, the latest tally is 543 people killed and 6,512 injured. Thousands of buildings, mostly old or of shoddy construction, were damaged or destroyed.

President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday estimated the cost of relief, compensation and new housing will surpass $660 million - nearly four times his initial estimate.

Some 5,000 protesters marched Saturday in Cairo and in Giza province, to the south.

About 1,000 demonstrators in the Bulaq area of downtown Cairo burned tires and threw stones at street lights and shop windows. Police denied clashing with the demonstrators, but reporters who went to the scene said the smell of gas was still in the air.

The Heliopolis apartment block, in an affluent neighborhood, was the biggest structure to topple. Frenchman Pierre Rasquier, a 30-year veteran of rescue operations, said he’d never seen a building made of shoddier materials.

Foreign rescue teams arrived with sniffer dogs about 24 hours after the collapse, long after the bulldozers began work. One of 15 survivors found by then owed her life to the machines, which cleared the way for human rescuers, rescuers said.

Bulldozers also cleared away much of the rubble that buried Ismail, the only person discovered after the dogs were brought in. A German dog handler, Roland Bartmann of Stuttgart, said animals had detected life in two other spots but by the time rescue workers dug them out by hand, they had died.

″The shout of a man in a hole is so low that we would have to stop all machines and traffic around,″ Bartmann said from Stuttgart. ″If we stop machines for long we can’t remove anyone.″

Ismail, who survived by drinking his own urine, told Al Gomhuria that while his wife was still alive, a small opening appeared in the rubble as rescue teams worked above them.

″A quarter of an hour later, the opening closed up again, and my wife at that point felt deep despair and died soon, as I held her hand,″ said Ismail. ″I continued shouting for help, but no one heard me.″

Rasquier, 75, acknowledged that a jackhammer and bulldozer can block air and light holes - even injure or kill trapped victims.

″(But) there are no ideal, sophisticated machines for this type of work,″ he said. ″It’s either bulldozers or bare hands.″

Searching by hand a ruin the size of the Heliopolis pile - more than 20 feet high - would take a month, he said.

″Also, governments everywhere want signs of destruction to disappear as fast as possible,″ he said. ″Life has to go back to normal.″