Filed at 7:48 a.m. ET
BAM, Iran (AP) -- Overwhelmed rescue crews picked through entire city blocks of rubble in search for survivors and bodies a day after an earthquake ruined this southeast Iranian city. With the death toll in the thousands, Iran appealed for international help and promised to waive visas for foreign relief workers.
The scope of the tragedy was so vast that a reliable death toll was impossible to pin down so soon after the magnitude 6.5 quake hit Bam early Friday. The Interior Ministry's early estimate on Saturday was 20,000 dead, while two leading rescue officials said the toll could eventually double.
"As more bodies are pulled out, we fear that the death toll may reach as high as 40,000. An unbelievable human disaster has occurred," said Akbar Alavi, the governor of the city of Kerman, the provincial capital.
The leader of one relief team, Ahmad Najafi, said in one street alone in Bam on Saturday, 200 bodies had been extracted from the rubble in one hour's work. Workers used their bare hands and shovels, while a few bulldozers moved piles of bricks in the search for bodies and survivors.
A man with white turban and graying beard dug into and lifted rubble from the remains of his house, where his family was buried. When a hand of his teenage daughter appeared, he fainted and collapsed, and eventually, the bodies of his daughter, wife and two sons were brought out.
With hospitals in the area destroyed, military transport planes had to evacuate many wounded for treatment to Kerman, and even to Tehran.
"There is not a standing building in the city. Bam has turned into a wasteland. Even if a few buildings are standing, you cannot trust to live in them," Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari told reporters Saturday.
One man interrupted Lari as he spoke. "My father is under the rubble," the man said, his face streaked with tears. "I've been asking for help since yesterday, but nobody has come to help me. Please help me. I want my father alive."
Lari tried to calm the man down and assigned an aide to see that he got assistance.
Authorities had new trouble to deal with Saturday. About 800 convicts escaped from the Bam prison, guard Vahid Masoumpour told The Associated Press. The prison lies outside the city and its walls fractured or collapsed without killing any inmates.
Thousands of residents of the city spent Friday night outdoors, sleeping under blankets in temperatures close to freezing. A few hundred slept in tents erected by relief workers, and more tents arrived Saturday.
Men and women were seen slapping their own faces and beating their chests in an Islamic ritual of mourning.
"This is the Apocalypse. There is nothing but devastation and debris," Mohammed Karimi, in his 30s, said Friday when he brought the bodies of his wife and 4-year-old daughter to the cemetery.
The government appealed for international aid and said it would waive visa requirements for foreign relief workers.
"The disaster is far too huge for us to meet all of our needs," President Mohammad Khatami said Friday. "However, all the institutions have been mobilized."
Many countries responded, and relief crews from across Europe began arriving. A search-and-rescue team from Los Angeles -- mostly county firefighters -- was getting ready to go as well.
Bam's population was 80,000 before the quake, and surrounding villages were also severely damaged.
In one of the city's cemeteries, relief workers were digging and a bulldozer was excavating a mass grave. More than 20 corpses were already lying in the mass grave. A cleric and 10 relatives were saying prayers over an individual grave.
The quake destroyed much of Bam's historic landmark -- a giant medieval fortress complex of towers, domes and walls, all made of mud-brick, overlooking a walled Old City, parts of which date back 2,000 years. Television images showed the highest part of the fort -- including its distinctive square tower -- crumbled like a sand castle down the side of the hill, though some walls still stood.
The quake struck at 5:28 a.m., while many were asleep. The state news agency IRNA put the magnitude at 6.3; the U.S. Geological Survey measured it at 6.5. Survivors were panicked throughout the day by aftershocks, including one that registered a magnitude of 5.3, according to the geophysics institute of Tehran University.
The interior minister said 70 percent of residential Bam had been destroyed, and there was no electricity, water or telephone service. Iran's Red Crescent, the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross, said rescue and relief teams had been sent to Bam from numerous provinces.
Entire neighborhoods in Bam had collapsed. On one street, only a wall and the trees were standing. People carried away injured, while others sat sobbing next to the blanket-covered corpses of their loved ones. One man held his head in his hands and wailed.
The quake's epicenter was outside Bam, and nearby villages were also damaged in the region, which is home to about 230,000 people and lies about 630 miles southeast of the capital, Tehran.
In Iran, quakes of more than magnitude 5 usually kill people because most buildings are not built to withstand earthquakes, although the country sits on several major fault lines and temblors are frequent. Iran has a history of earthquakes that kill thousands of people, including one of magnitude 7.3 that killed about 50,000 people in northwest Iran in 1990.
The United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, asked Iran for permission to send an UNESCO team of experts to the city's historic fortress, which has been under consideration for the agency's list of protected World Heritage Sites.
Parts of the Old City -- once an important stop on the Silk Road through Asia -- date back 2,000 years, though most of the structures were built in the 15th to 18th centuries.
Khatami declared three days of mourning. "God willing, we will try even harder to meet your needs," he said in a phone call to Kerman's governor that was aired on television.
Shocked Iranians mobilized to help. In Tehran, volunteers jammed a blood donation center. In Fars province, neighboring Kerman, the governor asked for donations of blankets and food and for volunteers to head to Bam to help in relief work.