At the Akbar Tourist Guest House on Monday, a legendary host to travelers venturing off the beaten track in Iran surveyed the devastation before him. Akbar Panjalizadeh lost his son, his guests and his dreams to one of Iran's worst earthquakes.
Struggling to collect his thoughts, Panjalizadeh, 61, greeted visitors as a gracious host in mourning. The triple blow — to his family, his guests and his business — was apparent in his sunken eyes.
When the quake struck last Friday in the early-morning hours, Panjalizadeh rushed to the guest house. His son, minding the family business, was pinned by rubble but conscious. Panjalizadeh told him to wait while he and passers-by dragged 15 guests from the flattened structure.
“The American man and the British man died,” Panjalizadeh said.
But while he rescued his guests, Panjalizadeh’s injured son went silent under the wreckage of bricks, concrete and furnishings from the hostel. “He died before I could save him,” Panjalizadeh said. “I didn't know whom to help first.”
Grim reality Just as at the Akbar Tourist Guest House, the grim reality of the earthquake, which officials say has killed up to 40,000 people, is setting in here.
There are a few fortunate ones. Digging through the remains of their home Monday, the Fakhralipour family described how they survived by jumping out of their house windows during the 12-second quake.
But as 48-year-old Yadullah Fakhralipour led his wife and four daughters to safety, they watched in horror as their neighbors were crushed when their home collapsed next door.
“People keep telling me I'm lucky,” Fakhralipour said as he and his family pulled their possessions — from carpets to potted plants — out of the wreckage of their home.
Fakhralipour said he has no idea how he will come up with the money to rebuild his tire repair shop.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared Monday while visiting Bam that “aid should continue to come so that, God willing, the city of Bam is rebuilt better and this time stronger than before. We can build a strong and developed city out of this devastation.”
But Fakhralipour said he doubted that the Iranian government, despite its promises, would be able to fund him fully.
“We may just have to leave Bam,” he said.
Generations of families Down the street, Ali Reza Farahmand, a 31-year-old engineer, said he rushed to Bam from his job in the capital, Tehran, immediately after hearing about the quake on the news.
The neighborhood where he grew up was flattened — sealing in dusty tombs about 380 relatives, who were sleeping when the quake struck before dawn.
“Twenty were pulled out alive,” Farahmand said. “Only 20.”
Panjalizadeh, the hotelier, said he was also missing dozens of relatives. “All around me on this street I had family,” he said. “Now there’s nobody.”
“I've been trying to find the right word to explain, and I can’t. It’s just a disaster.”
Rebuilding for Panjalizadeh is a distant dream but one he refused to let go of.
After retiring from 30 years as an English teacher, he decided to build a guest house “to treat people as well as they treated me in my travels around the world.”
His eyes welled with tears.
“The guest house means a lot. It was my dream for ages to do this job. If I die before the guest house is rebuilt, I've told my family to bury me here and build a new guest house over me.”
Preston Mendenhall, NBC’s Moscow correspondent, is on assignment in Iran.