Last week at the Beyond Persia film festival in San Francisco, Fardad Jamali and I went to the screening of a phenomenal film, "Bam 6.6" a documentary made by Jahangir Golestan-Parast.
Jamali is a Safety Expert. Actually he is one the top Industrial Safety, Health, and Emergency Preparedness experts in the US today. He wanted to see the film because it contained a lot of technical footage of the Bam earthquake, footage that has not been readily available to experts like him, to examine details of the rescue procedures used to rescue and retrieve the injured and dead.
If you have not seen this film, it is an amazing telling of the story of Tobb Dell 'Oro and his fiancee Adele Freedman who in 2003 went to Iran as part of a vacation, during which Tobb was going to propose to Adele, specifically planning to do so in the magical city of Bam. Bam has fascinated the world primarily because of it's former pristine beauty and the fact that it had survived so long, but also for it's mystery, as no one knows for sure just who the inhabitants of Bam were and what exactly the citadel city's purpose was in history.
Of course the plans went horribly wrong as the earthquake struck the very same night in which Tobb and Adele went to sleep in a quaint youth hostel within the city. Tobb was critically injured and Adele went through several weeks of surgery, treatment for depression, and hospital care in Tehran. Her case drew national attention in Iran, and the story of the American couple who had come to Iran to be betrothed in Bam, became a sensation and an outpouring of sympathy. Flowers and well wishes came into Adele's hospital room, and the government of Iran refused to accept payment for her treatment, when her parents came to Tehran to see her and arrange for her to return home.
During this emotion-filled film however, what upset Jamali, even more, was what he saw beyond the humanitarian story of these 2 unfortunate people.
I knew going into the film that Jamali would be focused on the technical details of the recovery operation and how the Iranian rescue officials reacted to the disaster. Normally Jamali is one of those obsessed Iranians whose profession is also their hobby. Whether it is to help the city of Fremont coordinate their Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, or to be a volunteer fire chief for his home town of Pleasanton, or to be the local San Jose chapter president of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), Jay as he is known to his American friends, is either advocating safety and emergency preparedness, or speaking about it to an audience at a trade show in China, or a convention in Vegas. On his day off, he'll also be happier than a pig in slop, to put together a "Jay's Recipe" survival kit for your home and family.
So you can imagine sitting next to him as the Bam disaster and the sheer reality of the destruction unfolded on the screen before us. Although Jamali had managed to smuggle in medical supplies to Iran, via a cousin in Tehran who drove down the supplies to a doctor she knew and could trust, in Bam during the disaster, we had only heard about the earthquake at that point. We could never have guessed it would be as bad as it turned out to be.
Immediately as the first scenes of the devastation began to appear, Jamali began twitching and "notch-notching" as he slowly became exasperated at the general lack of preparation, and worse, improper rescue and recovery techniques that he was seeing before his fast-moistening eyes.
After the film was finally over, pinching the tears out of our eyes, we made our way slowly out of the small theater, and began to talk about the technical aspects of the rescue techniques and recovery operation depicted in the film.
"I can't believe it!" Jamali said exasperatedly, "They don't know the first thing about any of this!
"I know," I said, "It took them 3 days to just allow the Americans with dogs to come and help them find survivors." I said, remembering the scene in which the American volunteer rescuers from Virginia and their dead finding dogs and live finding dogs, drank hot tea and described the hospitality of the Iranians, given the animosity between the US and Iran. "in the end, people are just people" one had said profoundly.
On the way back home, in Jamali's car, we spoke in somber tones about the film and the disaster.
"This happens every goddamn time there is an earthquake in Iran!" I said, "I mean how many times does this have to happen?, I mean, why can't they assess the number of towns and cities that are at risk of an earthquake or sitting on a fault , and at least be ready for the next big quake?"
Jamali replied, "They could do that and even more." He said as he squinted through the light rain that had begun to come down.
"What do you mean?" I asked
"Baba jan, look, there is so much they could be doing, that is basic, simple, established read it and do it type protocols for this sort of thing, that they could have rescued far more people than they did. It is absolutely un-necessay for this many to have died." he replied.
Later that week, in the shiny offices of his San Jose consultation firm Enviro Safetech, I spoke with Jamali about exactly what the government of Iran could have done better to rescue more people than were saved in Bam.
Jamali outlined a basic plan that now seems all but elemental, and not only sounds obvious, but happens to be backed by the emergency response policy here in the US.
Jamali suggested that given Iran's many fault lines and precarious geology, the chances of earthquakes in Iran is extremely high. Almost higher than any other country in the world. Given this risk, Jamali suggested that the government of Iran position at least 4 fully stocked helicopters at the 4 corners of the country, with a team of trained responders, ready to go into action. The nearest helicopter to the area, would arrive within minutes of a devastating earthquake, while the other 3 arrive very shortly later.
"Yeah but what good will one helicopter do?" I asked.
"Look," he said, "of course the responders would not be able to start saving lives on their own, that is why they need to be trained in coordinating all the help that will begin arriving as soon as the quake is over. They would direct the helpers and volunteers so that they properly prioritize their search after the team assesses everything. This happens very quickly." he added.
"In the film you could see people doing whatever they wanted and there was no coordination. Some even drove heavy bulldozers onto the rubble, not knowing that they were probably crushing survivors beneath them." We both winced.
Jamali swallowed hard, and continued., "Look the most likely chance of survival after an incident like this, is within 24 hours. You have got to get as many people out in that time as you can. After 24 hours, you are mostly bringing out bodies. That is why they needed to allow help to come in immediately, not delay the Americans and European search and rescue dog teams for 3 days later."
"I see. Then if the Iranian helicopter team was in place they could have directed the foreign help to the right areas and move things along faster, more efficiently." I was starting to get it.
We both pondered the sheer idiocy of not having such a plan, and wondered silently, how many people in Bam had died unnecessarily because the government does not know how to provide such basic emergency rescue procedures.
"Why do you think the government does not do something like this?" I asked.
"Honestly, I don't know. The last time I was in Iran a couple of years ago, I approached someone close to the head of Iran's Industrial Safety department, and was told that, "what will happen, will happen, it is God's will", type shit. and I couldn't handle that so I got up and just left without saying anything further." You could see the exasperation in Jamali's face growing as he remembered the meeting.
"But that's not really what worries me." he said.
"What?" I asked.
"What worries me is if an earthquake like Bam hits Tehran. That will be horrible on a scale I don't think anyone will be able to deal with." he said in a scared voice.
"Why? Because of all the apartments and sky scrapers?" I suggested.
"Partially. Iranian construction techniques are what you would call, "highly cost effective". For example to save money on the weld, welders in Iran only spot weld the beams of buildings, not a full strong seam all the way around. When an earthquake rolls or bumps, these spot welds snap off easily, which will create a lot of pancaking of floors onto the floors below and so on. It's simple gravity and physics." he said matter of factly.
"How many people do you think will die or be injured if a big one hits Tehran?" I asked half afraid of his answer.
"I'd say 200,000 dead, maybe twice that many injured." he said.
'That's a lot of God's will. " I sighed.
If you know anyone in Iran's Safety and Emergency Preparedness department, who would be able to help the government of Iran to get ready for the next big earthquake, pass this on to them, or put them in touch with Fardad Jamali. If you have any questions about Safety and Emergency Preparedness for the home or your workplace, contact Fardad Jamali. Because he believes that it is God's will that we be prepared.
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