This oil town, crushed in an earthquake on Sunday in Russia’s Far East, is little more than a cemetery. Shoddy, Soviet-era apartment blocks lie in mounds like tumbled tombstones, and rescue workers are pulling more corpses than survivors from the ruins.
“We feared the worst, but held out hope until today,” said Sergei Kopytov, 42, as he stood in front of the remains of his apartment building at 17 Pruchistkaya St.
The bodies of his uncle and aunt, Lyudmila and Pyotr Kopytov, both 55, were found beneath the rubble Wednesday by workers using cranes and bulldozers to peel away five floors of concrete slabs that had collapsed during the earthquake, which measured 7.5 on the Richter scale.
The apartment blocks were thrown together quickly in the 1960s to house oil workers and keep hard currency flowing. Wednesday, the Kopytovs were among the crushed bodies that lay beneath blankets waiting forremoval to the local cemetery.
The official death toll now stands at 529 in this town of 3,200 people on Sakhalin Island, 4,500 miles east of Moscow. Another 395 people have been injured. But many hundreds are still missing, believed dead, and authorities say they fear as many as 2,000 people died.
Authorities said Wednesday that Neftegorsk, which means “oil mountain,” will not be rebuilt. Survivors will be moved out and the rubble will be sealed, like the concrete sarcophagus placed over the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, to prevent disease.
The whole town will be a kind of cemetery, a monument to careless construction and the Soviet assumption that individual lives are less important than the needs of the state.
When the earthquake struck, Yelena Tishchenko, 19, was sitting in her neighbor’s kitchen chatting.
“Suddenly everything went black and I was lying on a floor that wasn’t a floor any more, covered in dust and hurting everywhere,” she said, sitting on a dirty mattress salvaged from the ruins across the street. “There weren’t any tremors or shaking or any of that. It was, Boom! and it was over. And everything was quiet again until the screaming started.”
Miss Tishchenko survived with minor bruises and two black eyes. Her neighbor, Yuri Tsvetkov, 34, was killed by falling debris. His body was recovered Monday along with that of Miss Tishchenko’s father, Valery. The body of her mother was discovered Wednesday by Miss Tishchenko’s aunt, Galina Anfinogenova.