BAM, Iran (AP) - Overwhelmed relief crews picked through rubble searching for survivors or bodies Saturday, a day after an early morning earthquake killed perhaps tens of thousands of people and devastated much of this ancient city in southeast Iran.
As help began arriving from around the world, the scope of the disaster was so vast that a precise death toll was not available. The Interior Ministry estimated 20,000 dead, but two leading rescue officials said the number could be twice as high.
More than 30,000 people were injured, the ministry said.
The earthquake, which struck at 5:28 a.m. Friday, was measured at magnitude 6.3 by Iranian authorities and 6.5 by the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado. The city is about 630 miles from Tehran.
"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 mayor of Kerman, the provincial capital.
Bam, in southeast Iran, suffered such extreme damage because most of the buildings are made of unreinforced mud brick and the quake was centered only about 10 miles outside the city, said Harley Benz, a USGS seismologist.
"The communities in this part of Iran are really not resilient to earthquakes," said Benz, head of the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo. "It's very sad and unfortunate."
Aftershocks shook Bam on Saturday, including one that registered a magnitude of 5.3, sending panic through the city.
Rescue workers in Bam pulled 150 survivors from the rubble Saturday, said Masoud Amiri, an officer with the Revolutionary Guards. The survivors included a baby, who was listed in stable condition.
The leader of a relief team, Ahmad Najafi, endorsed the 40,000 estimated death toll, saying rescuers pulled 200 bodies from one street in an hour.
"My father is under the rubble," one man said to Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari, interrupting a news conference. "I've been asking for help since yesterday, but nobody has come to help me. Please help me. I want my father alive."
Lari directed an aide to make sure the man got help.
The minister also emphasized that the official projected death toll in the city of 80,000 was only an estimate.
"There is not a standing building in the city," he said. "Bam has turned into a wasteland. Even if a few buildings are standing, you cannot trust to live in them."
The quake largely destroyed the city's best-known structure, the 2,000-year-old Bam citadel. The tallest section of the ancient mud fortress crumbled like a sand castle.
Throughout the city, rescue workers and relatives of the missing dug with shovels and bare hands to extricate bodies or survivors from flattened buildings.
Nations dispatched search teams and other assistance or promised to send help. Rescue teams from Switzerland, Britain, Germany, Russia and elsewhere arrived with equipment and dogs trained to search for survivors amid the rubble.
President Bush offered assistance, putting aside political differences. The U.S. Agency for International Development on Saturday dispatched a search-and-rescue team from Fairfax, Va., along with a specially trained squad of 70 California firefighters.
"We greatly welcome any assistance from the United States. We welcome assistance from all countries except Israel," Alavi said.
Israel and Iran are adversaries.
Iran's government opened its airspace to all planes carrying aid or relief workers. It also waived visa requirements for foreign relief personnel.
There were scenes of grief throughout Bam.
A man with white turban and graying beard fainted as he spotted the hand of his teenage daughter in the rubble of his home. Friends help remove the body of the girl, along with those of the man's wife and two sons, from the debris.
Thousands of people spent Friday night outdoors, sleeping under blankets in temperatures close to freezing point. Hundreds slept in tents erected by relief workers.
In a cemetery, workers prepared a mass grave that already held 20 corpses. Nearby, a cleric and 10 relatives said prayers over another grave.
"This is the Apocalypse. There is nothing but devastation and debris," one man, Mohammed Karimi, said Friday as he brought the bodies of his wife and 4-year-old daughter to the cemetery.
"Before she went to sleep she made me a drawing and kissed me four times," a tearful Karimi said of his daughter. "When I asked, 'Why four kisses?' she said, 'Maybe I won't see you again, Papa."'
With hospitals in the area destroyed, military transport planes had to evacuate many wounded to the provincial capital, Kerman, or Tehran.
The earthquake wrecked a prison outside Bam, allowing some 800 inmates to escape, said a guard, Vahid Masoumpour.
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.
12/27/03 11:31 EST
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press.