Quake Turns India's Republic Day into Day of Mourning

By Tara Chand Malhotra

AHMEDABAD, India, January 26, 2001 (ENS) - India’s Republic Day celebrations turned into a day of national mourning as the worst earthquake in 50 years rocked the western and northern parts of the sub-continent early this morning. The 30 second quake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people and left thousands of others seriously injured.

"The building where I live began to heave and shake like a pendulum. I caught hold of my three year old daughter and ran down to the ground. It was a deadly experience like touch and go," a shocked Ahmedabad housewife told ENS.

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Earthquake survivor sits amidst the wreckage of his life as rescue workers from the Indian Armed Forces seek survivors in Ahmedabad. (All photos (c) T.C. Malhotra)
Some thought they were about to die.

"My first feeling was that the earth had opened wide and it was going to swallow all of us. Right now I am sitting in the compound, my home has collapsed in the earthquake," Ramesh Patel told ENS by phone from a village 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of Ahmedabad.

"I saw all my neighbors running away, and we were frightened to the core as we saw people dying here and there," another villager said.

The western Indian province of Gujarat is bearing the brunt of the quake. Its capital city of Ahmedabad has sustained most of the loss of life and property damage. At least 30 highrises have collapsed in Ahmedabad City, the worst being the 10 story Shikhar building.

India's southern metropolis, Chennai has also been damaged. A report from Rajkot said at least 19 students of an engineering college were trapped as the structure collapsed.

Reports of quake related loss of life have come in from the Pakistani coastal city of Karachi.

The epicenter of the quake occurred at Bhuj, at 23.6 latitude and 69.8 longitude, 20 kilometers northeast of Bhuj in the western state of Gujarat, the Indian seismological department said.

But Pakistani seismologists place the epicenter in the Arabian Sea along the southwestern coast of the Indian peninsula.

Eyewitnesses say buildings swayed in Delhi and Bombay (Mumbai), hundreds of kilometers from the epicentre. Tremors were felt across the country in the states of Maharastra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

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Rescue workers search the rubble of Ahmedabad.
The high intensity quake came as a shock to people, most of who were sleeping late because of the national holiday. Shaken out of their beds, panic stricken people ran helter-skelter as many buildings collapsed in a heap.

In Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, frenzied people hung on to the pillars and walls of highrise buildings watching their belongings shake and sway.

People across Gujarat should expect smaller tremors to occur shortly said the Director of Indian Meteorological Department, Dr. N. Bhattacharya. "When such an earthquake occurs, there are bound to be aftershocks. Any building that has developed cracks should be evacuated immediately," he warned in a televised statement.

A massive rescue operation has been launched in the affected areas and the specialized paramilitary regiment the Rapid Action Force has been pressed into service to assist other civil and military agencies in the recovery operations.

Indian Air Force bases have been put on high alert. An Air Force spokesman said all bases in the sector, including Nallia, Bhuj and Jamnagar, have already swung into action.

A disaster control center has been set up at the air headquarters in New Delhi to coordinate the relief work.

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Home Minister, L.K. Advani expresses sadness as he considers the damage in Ahmedabad.
India’s Home Minister, L.K. Advani has reached Ahmedabad to take a first hand account of the situation and a national Cabinet meeting has been convened to take stock of the situation.

Geological historians say it is India's worst quake in exactly 50 years. "It is the biggest earthquake after the one that hit Assam way back in 1950," says Dr. Harsh Gupta, director of the National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad. That quake in the northeast Indian province of Assam, measuring 8.6 on the Richter Scale, occurred on Independence Day in 1950.

Dr. Gupta said today's quake measured 7.9 on the Richter Scale and its epicenter was in the Rann of Kutch. "This area witnessed a severe earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter Scale almost 182 years ago, on June 16, 1819," he observed.

The Kutch area did not have much seismic activity for a long time afterwards. But in the past year, some seismic activity was noticed in the Kutch area which is a continuation of the Narmada-Sone fault line.

An earthquake with magnitude of 6 on the Richter Scale occurred in the Jabalpur area of Madhya Pradesh on May 21, 1997.