Iraqi town on edge af­ter jolt

Dar­bandikhan mourns five dead amid ma­jor dam­age. Tem­blor also loos­ened boul­ders.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Alexan­dra Zavis alexan­dra.zavis @la­times.com Twit­ter: @alexza­vis

DAR­BANDIKHAN, Iraq — In the craggy moun­tains that sep­a­rate north­ern Iraq from Iran, peo­ple are used to earth­quakes. The area sits atop a ma­jor fault line that fre­quently sends shock waves through towns and vil­lages.

But few here can re­call any­thing like the mag­ni­tude 7.3 tem­blor that rocked the re­gion Sun­day night.

“Last year there was a small one, but this is crazy,” Ah­san Amin, a 42-year-old se­cu­rity guard, said Tues­day as he sur­veyed one of sev­eral flat­tened homes in the town of Dar­bandikhan.

Al­though most of the death and de­struc­tion oc­curred on the Ira­nian side of the bor­der, at least 10 peo­ple were killed and hun­dreds in­jured in Iraq.

The area around Dar­bandikhan, less than 15 miles from the epi­cen­ter, suf­fered the worst of it: five dead, scores in­jured and more than 2,000 dis­placed in the town alone.

Res­i­dents went to pay their re­spects Tues­day at mourn­ing tents erected by the fam­i­lies of the dead. The sur­vivors were on edge, whis­per­ing ru­mors that an­other big one was on the way or that a se­cret Ira­nian nu­clear test caused the quake.

Alarm­ing cracks ap­peared at the top of a dam hold­ing back the Diyala River, rais­ing fears that it might burst.

Se­cu­rity of­fi­cers with mega­phones drove through low-ly­ing, river­side neigh­bor­hoods late Sun­day night, urg­ing res­i­dents to evac­u­ate im­me­di­ately.

About a dozen res­i­dents crowded around Mayor Nasih Hassan at his of­fice Tues­day, de­mand­ing to know when they could re­turn home or what other shel­ter was avail­able.

“I don’t want money. I don’t want food. I just want tents to put my fam­ily in!” shouted Ahmed Mo­hammed, a 42-year-old po­lice­man. “Our houses aren’t safe be­cause of the dam.”

Hassan ex­plained that en­gi­neers were in­spect­ing the 56-year-old struc­ture to de­ter­mine the ex­tent of the dam­age and what re­pairs were needed. Un­til they com­plete their work, he said, he can’t tell any­one it is safe to go home.

Al­though ini­tial as­sess­ments sug­gested the dam­age was not se­vere, the dam’s man­ager, Rah­man Khani, said the cracks had weak­ened the struc­ture, which had not been ser­viced in sev­eral years.

“We are try­ing to re­duce the pres­sure on the dam by re­leas­ing some wa­ter from the reser­voir,” he said.

The quake sent boul­ders tum­bling down the sur­round­ing hills, block­ing roads to nearby vil­lages and flat­ten­ing cars. Sev­eral landed out­side a con­trol room where Ab­dul­lah Karim, 48, was mon­i­tor­ing images from the dam’s closed-cir­cuit cam­eras be­fore walls crum­bled, fur­ni­ture crashed to the floor and he sprinted for the door.

The scene at the dam, a fa­vorite spot for pic­nick­ing and fish­ing, was more peace­ful Tues­day. Cu­ri­ous lo­cals ex­am­ined the jagged cracks and posed for self­ies in front of a tow­er­ing boul­der.

Schools were still closed in the town be­low, but shops were open, and the streets buzzed with traf­fic.

In­spec­tors were go­ing door to door as­sess­ing the dam­age to homes and busi­nesses. More than 100 build­ings have been de­clared struc­turally un­sound, and the num­ber keeps grow­ing, ac­cord­ing to the ex­hausted mayor, who said he hadn’t been home since the quake struck.

The tem­blor also caused ex­ten­sive dam­age to the town’s power sta­tion, wa­ter pumps and hospi­tals, of­fi­cials said. Med­i­cal per­son­nel treated the in­jured Sun­day in a tent erected out­side a pub­lic health cen­ter, be­fore send­ing the most se­ri­ous cases by am­bu­lance to the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal, Su­lay­maniya, about 35 miles to the north. Four­teen quake vic­tims re­mained hos­pi­tal­ized Tues­day.

Among those in­jured and killed were eth­nic Arabs who had f led to Iraq’s semi­au­tonomous Kur­dish re­gion to es­cape the war against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and sec­tar­ian fight­ing.

As many as 20 fam­i­lies were crammed into a three­story struc­ture that col­lapsed into rub­ble on a busy in­ter­sec­tion at the edge of town, ac­cord­ing to neigh­bors who dug through the wreck­age with their bare hands Sun­day to help pull out trapped oc­cu­pants.

“They were cry­ing for help,” said Saif Ali, 23, who moved to the town from the con­flict-rid­den prov­ince of Diyala as a teenager. “We pulled eight peo­ple out, but two of them were dead, a mother and a baby.”

His mother, vis­i­bly ag­i­tated, pointed to a pile of rub­ble near the front door to their apart­ment, part of a bal­cony wall that was shorn off by the quake.

“It’s the first time we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing like this,” Ali ex­plained.

Taha Mo­hammed, who spent years work­ing in con­struc­tion, in­vested his life sav­ings in a small su­per­mar­ket with a two-floor apart­ment above it for his wife and chil­dren. He was sit­ting in the shop dis­cussing pol­i­tics with a neigh­bor late Sun­day when the build­ing started to sway and the lights went out.

The pair raced into the street with just sec­onds to spare be­fore the build­ing pan­caked on top of where they had been sit­ting.

“I was just pray­ing and shout­ing, ‘Where are my chil­dren? Where is my wife?’ ” Mo­hammed said.

Wide-eyed neigh­bors pointed out a list­ing con­crete col­umn that pre­vented the up­per floors from col­laps­ing on top of his fam­ily mem­bers as they strug­gled down the stairs.

“When I saw them, I didn’t rec­og­nize them. They were cov­ered with dust,” Mo­hammed said. “I don’t know how they made it out .... It must have been God’s do­ing.”

Felipe Dana Associated Press

A HOUSE in Dar­bandikhan, Iraq, gets a dam­age check. More than 2,000 peo­ple have been dis­placed.

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