U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo planes big enough to carry water tankers began arriving in India's devastated quake zone today as relief workers raced to distribute food, medicine and supplies among hundreds of thousands of survivors before disease spreads.
The demolition of damaged buildings picked up speed. Soldiers piled clothes, broken furniture and children's toys in front of ruined buildings, and survivors made last-minute forays into the rubble to gather possessions before their homes were knocked down.
In what U.S. officials described as an "air bridge," two C-5s — the largest planes in the Air Force fleet — flew aid from Travis Air Force Base in California and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to Guam. In Guam, the supplies were transferred to smaller planes, because the Ahmedabad airport was too small for C-5s.
The first of the smaller planes, a C-141 carrying personnel to help unload, touched down just before 8 a.m. today in Ahmedabad, the largest city in quake-hit Gujarat state. A lack of people to unload aid off cargo planes has caused a bottleneck in the relief effort.
Planes Arriving Through the Day
A C-17 landed in the afternoon with equipment such as tanker trucks to carry water and forklifts for clearing debris.
Mission commander Maj. Dean Steele of Sonoma, Calif., said the other C-17s carrying sleeping blankets, tents and other supplies would land at 1 1/2-hour intervals over the rest of the afternoon.
"There is nothing more rewarding than helping people in need," Steele said.
Aid flights have been landing steadily at Ahmedabad since the quake; the flight schedule for the U.S. planes was cleared for most of today.
As it taxied down the runway after landing, the first giant gray C-17 passed a Kuwait Air Force plane already on the ground. A truck full of laborers met the U.S. flight to help unload supplies that will be distributed by a Christian missionary organization, Xavier Trust.
The U.S. military crew could see cracks in buildings at the airport, only a hint of the devastation wrought in Gujarat by the 7.7-magnitude quake on Jan. 26.
Official Transferred Amid Complaints of Slow Response
Maj. Jeffrey Wright, assistant Army attache at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, dismissed complaints that the recovery effort has been disorganized.
"Given the size of the calamity, there are a lot of people doing a lot of good work," he said today in Ahmedabad.
Amid complaints that Gujarat officials were slow to respond to the disaster in the western region of Kutch, the top local administrator in Kutch has been transferred to another post without explanation, sources in the state government said today.
A major humanitarian crisis was brewing for the survivors, including approximately 600,000 homeless, who have been left without food, clothing or sanitation.
A six-person military assessment team from U.S. Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii was sent to assist the U.S. Embassy in evaluating the need for more Pentagon assistance. A 747 cargo plane, carrying an additional $4 million in aid from the U.S. Agency for International Development, will land on Monday, probably in New Delhi.
Aftershocks Continue to Jolt Region
Former President Clinton met Friday in New York with Indian-American businessmen and some Indian government officials to launch a $1 million fund-raising project for victims. Clinton raised the proposal a day earlier in a phone call with India's prime minister.
Confusion continued over the death toll. Late Friday, a top state official in Gujarat put the number of bodies so far recovered at 15,088, but the Gujarat state control room this morning put the toll at 11,341. The number of injured was 62,729.
Further earthquake damage remained a threat. Dozens of strong aftershocks have jolted the region, and a 5-magnitude quake hit just north of the damaged town of Bhachau this morning. Officials at India's main port of Kandla reported another strong aftershock this afternoon. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage in Bhachau or Kandla.
Buildings that were severely damaged by the quake must be brought down. The aftershocks could send them toppling, possibly causing more injuries and death.
In Ahmedabad today, the army rolled a 3.5-ton crane up to the 15th of August, a building named for India's independence day, and began knocking down its concrete walls and steel girders with a steel ball. Soldiers also drilled a hole in the stone foundation and filled it with a powder that causes the building to expand until it crumbles, avoiding damage to intact buildings nearby.
"My heart hurts seeing this come down," said Himat Solanki, who escaped with his wife, mother and two children. "We'll have to start all over again."
As the ball smashed into the wall of his home, Solanki shook his head and said, "Now it's all over."