Alive after 60 hours under the rubble

Samoa remembers tsunami victims – while in Sumatra the digging goes on
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The Independent Online

As Samoans struggled to come to terms with the deaths of loved ones during a national prayer service for tsunami victims yesterday, rescuers in Indonesia battled torrential rain to uncover the remains of those still trapped, four days after Sumatra's disastrous earthquake.

The service, at the headquarters of the Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa, was held to commemorate the lives of the tsunami's 176 victims. The Territorial Governor, Togiola Tulafono, said she hoped the service would bring the community together in the aftermath of the disaster. Mass burials are set to take place later this week at a cemetery in the island's capital, Apia.

Over the weekend, extraordinary survival stories emerged from Indonesia. A couple were found alive on Saturday after spending over 60 hours buried in the wreckage of a seven-storey hotel in the Sumatran capital, Padang. Firman and Siti were dug out of their room on the second floor of the Ambacang Hotel suffering from broken limbs and serious head injuries after sniffer dogs alerted rescuers. It took rescuers from Ambacang, a special unit of the Indonesian Police, three hours to free them with a mechanical digger.

Yesterday police were forced to evacuate hillside villages in the Padang Pariaman district badly hit by last week's earthquake, as heavy rain sparked fears of fresh landslides. As rescue workers reached the area on the Indonesian island's western coast for the first time since Wednesday's quake, government officials said at least 603 people were presumed dead. Indonesia's vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, said: "We can be sure that they are dead. So now we are waiting for burials."

Hordes of aid workers, military personnel, police and volunteers arrived yesterday in the area, where entire hillsides were shaken loose. Until their arrival, residents had been desperately clawing through the mud with their bare hands to try to uncover victims buried by landslides.

Rustan Pakaya, the head of the country's Health Ministry crisis centre, said some of the villages were sucked 30 metres below ground. "Even the mosque's minaret, taller than 20 metres, disappeared," he said. In Jumanak village, 200 to 300 wedding guests were said to have been buried alive while celebrating at a restaurant.

In the island's capital, Padang, where rescue efforts have been concentrated, aid workers said it was unlikely any more survivors would be found. Rapid UK announced that it was pulling out of the country to give way to the relief effort. "We are as confident as we can be that there is no one left alive in the urban area to be found," said Clive Hodges, the chief executive of the organisation. "We have pulled out of the immediate area because our assessment is that the rescue phase is over. It's moved into the relief effort now and that's not what we do."

Aid workers raised the alarm about a looming humanitarian crisis as Sumatrans struggle to get clean water. In Padang, Oxfam worker Ian Bray said that in some places one well serves up to 1,000 people. "The municipal water supply is down and won't be working for 30 days," he said. "The price of drinking water has doubled to 8,000 Rupees. Even if you have a well, because of the earthquake, the water has become muddy and dirty."

There is still no clear estimate on the death toll from Wednesday's 7.6-magnitude quake. The United Nations estimated that 1,100 had died. The Indonesian government earlier said 715 were dead and 3,000 missing, but yesterday revised the figure to say 603 people are confirmed dead and 960 missing, presumed dead.