A well-practiced emergency relief effort was under way in the Kerman Province Wednesday as Iran responded to Tuesday's earthquake that devastated remote villages throughout central Iran.
Scores of soldiers and the Iranian Red Crescent Society volunteers were bused and flown into the affected area hours after the early morning quake struck, which is estimated to have killed at least 500 people. But they found it difficult to reach some of the remote mountain villages.
Rescue workers Wednesday were still recovering bodies and finding survivors in the rubble of some villages, which have been almost completely destroyed.
Some international aid agencies working on the reconstruction in Bam, site of an earthquake in December 2003, that killed 26,000 people and leveled the historic city, drove into the area to offer their help.
"We got the call at 7 a.m. and loaded up a car to drive to the earthquake zone," says Hani Mansourian, a child protection officer for UNICEF in Bam. They were joined by other organizations working on the reconstruction of the city, including France's Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Czech agency People in Need, and Switzerland's Medair.
The international teams were impressed with the government's response to the quake in more accessible areas. "By the time we arrived in the village of Dahoueieh, there were already large numbers of rescue workers and facilities. Hot food was being served and a medical center had been established," says Mr. Mansourian. "The immediate relief operation was very good."
However, survivors who have lost their homes are angry as they prepare to face a second night in bitterly cold conditions. "We have nothing and have received nothing but a tent," says a woman standing in the courtyard of her rubble strewn home in the village of Islamabad, down the mountain road from Houdkan. "It is cold and the children will fall ill."
The Iranian government - which shuns direct contacts with the United States - has so far not asked directly for international help. Still, the Japanese government announced Wednesday that it would send blankets, tents, and other aid worth $191,000 to aid quake victims.
Although Iran's immediate emergency service operations have a strong reputation - earned partly from the wide experience in dealing with the country's many deadly earthquakes - long-term responses can be more difficult.
Residents of Bam rioted last year at what they saw as the slow trickle of reconstruction work. This disaster is on a far smaller scale to Bam but in places like Houdkan village it could be as tough a job.
Houdkan was hit hardest by Tuesday's quake, and was also the hardest to reach. Heavy rain had turned the steep, winding mountain road into a boggy mud track that larger vehicles struggled to traverse. Landslides and boulders had blocked the road and were not cleared until six hours after the quake.
The rain and then a heavy fog reduced visibility to about 50 yards for long periods, making it harder for military helicopters to assess the level of damage and fly in assistance. The village had become a muddy morass from which collapsed walls and twisted steel bars poked. Rescue teams in the white and red bibs of the Red Crescent struggled over the treacherous terrain, fearful of suddenly crumbling walls.
Relief workers described it as "a small Bam," and some even said it was useless to go there because all the inhabitants had died.
Search efforts also continued Wednesday in Sarbagh and Dahoueieh, which rescue workers had the most difficulty reaching in the hours after the quake hit.
The quake was centered on the outskirts of Zarand, a town of about 15,000 people in Kerman about 600 miles southeast of the capital Tehran. It struck a region only 150 miles from Bam. Though comparable in strength to the 6.6-magnitude Bam quake, Tuesday's quake hit a more sparsely populated area and was centered far deeper limiting the damage.
Still, the tiny villages that dot the mountains were hard hit. "I lost everything. All my life is gone," sobbed Asghar Owldi whose wife and two children were killed.
Iran is located on seismic fault lines and is prone to earthquakes.
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.