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Rescuers Continue Search for Life Beneath India Quake Rubble; Death Toll Feared More Than 20,000

Aired January 29, 2001 - 1:17 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: In India, rescuers are using special equipment to search for signs of life beneath the rubble of last week's devastating earthquake. Authorities now estimate the death toll has reached more than 20,000.

CNN's Riz Khan has the latest from Ahmedabad.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RIZ KHAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Dawn breaks over the Cochrea District (ph) of Ahmedabad. Behind the picture of tranquility lies one of the most severely affected areas of the city. Here the earthquake struck indiscriminately. Some houses stand completely unscathed beside the ruins of their neighbors homes and lives.

Although there's little hope of finding survivors here, soldiers of the Indian army use their bare hands to clear rubble from those who might be trapped in air pockets. Heavy equipment is scarce. A few diggers are present, but most of the operation is painstaking process of manual labor.

(on camera): In contrast, the search and recovery mission of this site is stopped. But it leaves behind one of the most poignant stories of this tragic disaster. Around 60 children were attending a special Republic Day class at the Swami Nuran (ph) School in Visanpur (ph) when the quake hit. In no time at all, the concrete layers of the building folded upon themselves. Less than half the children survived.

(voice-over): Eight-year-old Janti Cochler (ph) was one of them, but he lies in hospital with a crushed leg. His 12-year-old brother Ramesh (ph) perished in the rubble, one of 181 bodies taken to the morgue at this hospital.

A stream of grieving relatives passes through to make the traumatic identification. In the intensive care unit, Usha Desai (ph) holds prayer vigil for her husband Sirinda (ph), a journalist with the "Vijarati (ph) Financial Times." His father died when the family's building collapsed.

They call these the lucky ones, if a makeshift bed in a hospital corridor can be considered lucky. Hospital's overcrowded, seven wards condensed into three as the earthquake destroyed the newer buildings, leaving the older ones intact.

DR. DHARMILA SHAH, LP HOSPITAL: At present, the problem is space. Even our resident doctors there also not getting in their quarters. Nursing students, they are not getting in their quarters. They sleep outside on the ground, under the tent.

KHAN: Dr. Shah points a finger at those who built the city.

SHAH: Main calamities is because of this poor construction. That should be condemned. They should be punished.

KHAN: Elsewhere, life continues unchanged as local youths enjoy a game of cricket. But for others, like the clock at Kumna Temple (ph), life changed forever shortly before 9:00 on the morning of India's Republic Day.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KHAN: And, of course, this party of India is a very mixed part where all casts and religions, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, have always been able to put aside their differences to live together and work together. And that's certainly going to be a challenge for them as they try to rebuild this part of the city here in Ahmedabad -- Joie.

CHEN: Riz, you talk about the facilities and what's available. Is there much frustration from the local people? Is the -- do they feel the government is doing all that can be done?

KHAN: Well, Joie, a lot of people came out and said, where was the government when this all happened? Where was the help when we needed it? The trouble is that word was very slow in getting out of this region, largely because when the earthquake hit it hit with such force that power lines went down, communications went right down. At the time, I was down in Mumbai. And though the tremor was felt widely there, people didn't really know what was going on. And I can say, pretty much the whole day, the country -- that part of the country further south didn't have any idea of the extent of damage here. So that was one of the big problems.

Then there's getting access to regions like Bhuj, near the epicenter of the earthquake, which was 90 percent flattened. Getting to that area has been impossible because many of the roads and bridges were damaged too.

So I think there is some degree of frustration. But I think the government now is trying to use the air force to maximum effect to try to fly in supplies now that the airports are open, Joie.

CHEN: Riz, what about help from other countries? Have they made any specific requests now?

KHAN: Well, interestingly enough, the latest debate has been whether or not India is going to accept help from neighboring Pakistan, which of course India has been in conflict with over the year, the disputed Kashmir/Himalayan region. Pakistan has offered to help. And at a press conference a little while ago here in Ahmedabad, the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, said, well, if help is offered, we'd take it. It was a slightly sort of tangential reference to the fact that India might just accept help from its rival and neighbor, if you like.

Otherwise, teams have come in from other parts of the world. I saw a Swiss rescue team searching around through the city, using sniffer dogs trying to pull people out. But of course as the days go by, the chances of finding people alive really does grow slim and they're concentrating on trying to help those alive. But most of those teams from France, Britain, Switzerland -- Taiwan and Japan also on standby -- they're all going to the most hit areas, which are a little bit further outside near the areas like Bhuj and Bachow (ph), Joie.

CHEN: Our Riz Khan reporting from Ahmedabad in India.

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