Quake Toll Rises, Rescuers Persist

The death toll in the earthquake-stricken town of Neftegorsk on Sakhalin Island rose to 1,380 Tuesday as hundreds of government and rescue workers continued to comb the remote site.


No survivors were found for a third straight day, but rescue operations will continue until the last body is discovered in the rubble, said Sergei Shoigu, the emergency situations minister.


A total of 406 survivors have been pulled out, none since early Saturday, he said at a news conference. Rescuers have found 1,380 dead bodies, but only 761 of those have been identified.


Almost 1,700 rescue workers remain on the island. Those who worked in the ruins had to wear protective clothing and wear respirators, he said.


Out of Neftegorsk's 2,977 people, only 1,087 survived the magnitude-7.5 quake that struck the sleeping town early May 28, officials estimate.


Shoigu said he had met with President Boris Yeltsin on Tuesday to report on rescue efforts and discuss help for survivors.


Yeltsin was pleased with their work and agreed to increase the ministry's personnel by three times within as many years, he said.


After many survivors refused to be resettled elsewhere in Sakhalin, Shoigu said Yeltsin approved a government proposal to issue housing certificates giving each of the quake victims rights to government-built housing in the town or city of their choice.


"We learned from past experience when funds allocated for new housing were not used to the best advantage,'' Shoigu said. "We wanted to avoid red tape and give them the right to make a choice.''


Shoigu said his ministry had learned from other things, too.


Created as an emergency rescue service at the end of 1991 by one of Yeltsin's first decrees after the Soviet breakup, its personnel have given aid at the site of quakes, floods and industrial accidents and deactivated 500 war-time bombs per year.


Following last year's earthquake in the Kuril Islands and warned by seismologists about a possible major temblor in Kamchatka, they had a mock quake exercise in the area just weeks before the Sakhalin quake, Shoigu said.


They had also started to create a major base in the Far East. Food and clothes from the base were used in Neftegorsk, Shoigu said.


"We had not created a large pool of heavy machinery on the base, but it's all for the best--experience has taught us that cranes can kill during the first hours and even days,'' he added.


"This quake has taught us about the hour of silence, when we turned off all engines to listen to the voices of people under the rubble.


"We found 58 people after the first day's hour of silence, 42 people the next day, and the last two on Saturday,'' he said.