Nighttime is when bone-numbing cold returns to the homeless and the rescue teams rev up for work. For many survivors of Iran's Dec. 26 earthquake, white tents and colorful blankets have arrived to ease sleeping out in sub-freezing temperatures. Nothing shields them from devastating losses.
Rescuers know that the overnight quiet is the best time for desperate searches-the only kind left to do beyond the 72-hour mark, after most live victims can be recovered from quake rubble. In the dark, with trucks stilled, trench-digging for graves subsided, and the cries of babies and mourners muffled, stalwart teams flicked on headlamps and sonar equipment. What rescuers remained pursued every report of possible life, probing bewildering lumps of mud bricks in defiance of the unyielding foul stench of death. Each operation began with the vigor of a bivouac but faded to the solemnity of final rites as the workers failed to uncover life beneath the rubble.
Rescue professionals know that fault lines and poverty will combine to send them to Afghanistan or Turkey or inland China-or Iran-on a moment's notice. For days they heard cries that they could not reach and navigated rubble they could not conquer. Time ran out for everything but a miracle.
In their final hours rescuers found alive a 6-month-old baby named Nassim. She survived because she was cradled in her mother's arms. Then, 36 hours after rescuers should have given up, they pulled four more survivors from the rubble.
"There's always hope of pulling more survivors out," said Ted Peran, coordinator of UN relief operations, "but the window of opportunity is closing rapidly." As of Dec. 30, he told reporters, the rescue phase was ending, and workers entered the humanitarian relief phase.
Four days after the magnitude 6.7 earthquake, locals buried more than 30,000 people and estimated the final death toll will reach 50,000. It is the worst earthquake loss the world has seen in more than a decade.
In the next week round-the-clock rescue teams-numbering 1,700 workers from 30 countries-will be replaced by relief operations. At least 12,000 people were injured in the quake. The UN estimates 90,000 people in the region are now homeless. Seventy percent of homes in Bam, once a city of 80,000, are destroyed.
"With these numbers the scene is quite chaotic," said Michael Kennedy, relief and development coordinator for Elam Ministries, a British-based charity that supports Iranian churches. "It will take some time to sort out all that should be done."
Elam has four teams of church workers from Tehran in Bam this week. They are handing out blankets, food, and warm clothing. They also plan to airlift temporary shelter and medicine, along with assessing needs for longer-term assistance. The group depends on overseas donations but stresses the importance of Iranians helping Iranians.
Where political upheaval in this region dominated the minds of pundits and other observers, now the Bam quake lays claim to their hearts. Iran's enemies as well as allies have stepped in with aid. U.S.-Iran contact, severed in 1981 after Islamic revolutionaries held hostage U.S. diplomats, was renewed overnight in the wake of overwhelming tragedy. The first Air Force C-130 laden with humanitarian aid (food, water, intravenous fluid, and other medical supplies on standby for wartime needs in Iraq) flew from Qatar to an airfield near Bam on Dec. 29. American airmen worked alongside Iranian soldiers, forming a human chain to unload 20,000 pounds of desperately needed supplies. The Air Force also brought in aerial equipment to ease humanitarian flight into the remote area.
"There is no political angle here," said State Department spokesman Lou Fintor. "Our efforts will not alter the tone or intensity of our dialogue with the Iranians on other matters of grave concern," referring to Iran's support of terrorism and its nuclear-weapons program.
What Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic state's unelected ruler, has called a "divine trial" is also an opportunity to chip away at the repressive theocratic order. While American forces worked side-by-side with the Iranian military, Christians are bringing relief alongside Muslim charities.
"We have Iranian Christians who can go and be with people who have lost relatives," Mr. Kennedy told WORLD. "Everyone is concerned about physical needs. But there is a lot of trauma for survivors, a lot of compassion and counseling is needed."
Promoting any religion but Islam is strictly forbidden in Iran. Mr. Kennedy said church workers from the country's small Christian population are careful not to openly evangelize. At the same time, they know quake victims "are open to hearing words of comfort, and our workers will share out of personal experience where they find strength and comfort."
Aid agencies with experience in Iran, and boots already on the ground, are in the best position to bring relief after the quake. Elam has supported humanitarian work in Iran since 1990, when it repaired a church and built two elementary schools after another earthquake. The following year the group served hot meals and medicine to Kurdish refugees in Iran following the Gulf War. For the last two years the group has been assisting Afghan refugees who fled to Iran following the war on terror. Elam is coordinating quake relief with Baltimore-based World Relief.
Portland, Ore.-based Mercy Corps also has ongoing work in Iran and was able to dispatch a five-person team to the quake site in Bam, 650 miles southeast of Tehran, less than 24 hours after disaster struck. The group sent two trucks loaded with blankets, oil stove heaters, and drinking water the same day. Mercy Corps is the first U.S. relief agency to be registered to work in Iran and has had 30 Iranian staff members helping Afghan refugees at the Iran-Afghanistan border since May 2003.
Chief resource development officer Matthew DeGalan told WORLD the agency raised more than $100,000 for quake relief from Iranian-Americans.
"It's been an incredible response, probably the largest three-day response we've ever had," he said. "The Iranian-American community has been extremely generous."
Press material for World Vision, based in Washington state, indicates the aid agency has raised more than $200,000 for Bam relief since it posted an appeal for donations shortly after the quake struck. World Vision plans to send an initial $600,000 in emergency relief supplies, followed by water-purification systems and other donations.
Church-based charity workers say they welcome the flood of donations and interest, because they know it will subside with the next wave of headlines. "The thing that is important to communicate," says Tat Stewart of World Witness, a longtime worker with Iranian churches in the United States, "is that this is a great time for the world church to show its love for the Iranian people, and could be a great way to soften many hearts towards the Lord."