TEHRAN (Dispatches) – Iranian officials on Tuesday called off rescue operations, saying there was little chance of finding more survivors from the earthquake that shook parts of western Iran on Sunday, killing at least 530 people.
"The rescue operations in Kermanshah province have ended,” Pir-Hussein Kolivand, head of Iran’s Emergency Medical Services, said.
Earlier in the day, rescuers used backhoes and heavy equipment to dig through the debris of buildings toppled by the powerful earthquake on the border between Iran and Iraq as aid workers found new bodies.
The grim work continued in earnest in the Kurdish town of Sarpol-e-Zahab in the western Iranian province of Kermanshah, which appears to be the hardest hit in the magnitude 7.3 earthquake.
Survivors, many left homeless by the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that struck villages and towns in a mountainous area bordering Iraq, battled overnight temperatures just above freezing and faced another day Tuesday in need of food and water.
The death toll of 530, reported by state news agency IRNA, made it Iran’s deadliest earthquake in more than a decade. Thousands of people were injured and 30,000 homes damaged. Two whole villages were destroyed.
Thousands of people huddled in makeshift camps while many others chose to spend the night in the open, despite low temperatures, because they feared more tremors after some 193 aftershocks, state television said.
A homeless young woman in Sarpol-e Zahab, one of the hardest-hit towns, told state TV that her family was exposed to the night cold because of lack of tents.
"We need help. We need everything. The authorities should speed up their help,” she said.
Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, offered his condolences on Monday to the victims and called on government agencies to do all they could to help.
The Iranian army, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and its affiliated Basij forces were dispatched to affected areas on Sunday night.
Hospitals in nearby provinces took in many of the injured, state television said, airing footage of survivors waiting to be treated. Hundreds of critically injured were dispatched to hospitals in Tehran.
Iran’s Red Crescent said emergency shelter had been provided for thousands of homeless people, but a lack of water and electricity as well as blocked roads in some areas hindered aid supply efforts.
"People in some villages are still in dire need of food, water and shelter,” said the governor of Qasr-e Shirin county in Kermanshah province, Faramarz Akbari.
The mayor of Ezgeleh, a city in Kermanshah, said 80% of its buildings had collapsed. Survivors desperately needed tents with elderly people and babies as young as one-year-old sleeping in the cold for two straight nights.
In an interview with state television, Nazar Barani asked people to send fuel, milk, water and food as emergency services were too slow and providing limited provisions.
"People are hungry and thirsty,” a local man told ISNA news agency. "There is no electricity. Last night I cried when I saw children with no food or shelter.”
Photographs posted on Iranian news websites showed rescue workers digging people out of collapsed buildings, cars smashed beneath rubble and rescue dogs trying to find signs of life under the twisted ruins.
Iran is crisscrossed by major fault lines and has suffered several devastating earthquakes in recent years, including a 6.6 magnitude quake in 2003 that reduced the historic southeastern city of Bam to dust and killed some 31,000 people.
Kermanshah, an almost entirely Kurdish province nestled in the Zagros Mountains that run along the border with Iraq, suffered all of Iran's fatalities from the temblor Sunday night that shook 14 of the country's 31 provinces.
The hospital in Sarpol-e-Zahab was heavily damaged, and the army set up field hospitals, although many of the injured were moved to other cities, including Tehran.
The quake also damaged an army garrison and buildings in the border city and killed an unspecified number of soldiers, according to reports.
There are fears more dead could be in the rubble in Sarpol-e-Zahab and other rural villages of Kermanshah province. Muhammad Ali Monshizadeh, a spokesman for the provincial forensic department, said possibly as many as 150 people were buried by family members after the earthquake in remote villages who had not been counted in the official death toll.
Iran's Red Crescent also said it worried about more bodies in rural villages.
Cleric Abdolhussein Moezi, a representative of Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei who also is touring the area, said there was a need for more relief material and "security."
President Hassan Rouhani arrived in Kermanshah province on Tuesday to see the damage for himself and offer his support to those affected.
"This was a pain for all Iranians," Rouhani said, according to a statement on the presidency's website. "Representing the nation of Iran, I offer my condolences to the people of Kermanshah, and tell them that all of us are behind Kermanshah."
Iran's Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif offered his thanks to foreign countries offering to help but wrote on Twitter: "For now, we are able to manage with our own resources."
The quake was centered about 19 miles (31 kilometers) outside the eastern Iraqi city of Halabja, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and struck 14.4 miles (23.2 kilometers) below the surface, a somewhat shallow depth that can cause broader damage. The quake caused Dubai's skyscrapers to sway and could be felt 1,060 kilometers (660 miles) away on the Mediterranean coast.
Seven deaths occurred in Iraq and 535 people were injured, all in the country's northern, semiautonomous Kurdish region, according to its Interior Ministry.
Sarpol-e-Zahab fell to the troops of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during his 1980 invasion of Iran, which sparked the eight-year war between the two countries. Though clawed back by Iran seven months later, the area remained a war zone that suffered through Saddam's missile attacks and chemical weapons.
After the war, Iran began rebuilding the town. Rouhani said the government would launch an investigation into why the buildings so easily toppled.
"The faults and shortcomings in the construction of these buildings should be investigated," he said, according to IRNA. The "government will definitely follow up on these issues and identify the culprits."