'How can this happen to us again?'

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The Independent Online

An Australian navy helicopter, ferrying an emergency medical team to the earthquake-devastated Indonesian island of Nias, crashed yesterday killing nine Australian personnel and injuring two others. The accident dramatically underlined the hazards facing those involved in the relief effort in the region.

An Australian navy helicopter, ferrying an emergency medical team to the earthquake-devastated Indonesian island of Nias, crashed yesterday killing nine Australian personnel and injuring two others. The accident dramatically underlined the hazards facing those involved in the relief effort in the region.

It also provided a tragic coda to one bit of good cheer earlier in the day, when an Indonesian man who survived nearly five days under the rubble of his house was pulled out by rescuers.

The 42-year-old man, identified only as Hendra, emerged alive from the wreckage a day after rescue workers formally called off the search for survivors. Labourers, employed by the family to keep looking in the ruins of the three-storey house, heard him calling out for help. They alerted the police who fetched Singaporean and Indonesian rescue teams that spent seven hours cutting through thick layers of broken walls and roof.

But there has been little else in the way of good news for the people here. When the second massive earthquake in just three months struck off the coast of Sumatra on Monday night, the people of western Indonesia could scarcely believe it. "How can this happen to us again?" has been the refrain from survivors. Struggling to recover from the Boxing Day tsunami which devastated Aceh province, Indonesians were hit by another major earthquake.

But if seismologists - who released a study warning of more major earthquakes in the area - are right, people here can expect many more big quakes for decades to come.

Yesterday much of the island was in ruins, large areas of the main city, Guning Sitoli, reduced to rubble. Eyewitnesses spoke of bodies still poking up through the ruins, and the stench of death everywhere.No one is sure of the final death count. The Indonesian government has reduced its prediction from 2,000 to around 500. But many relief agencies believe it could still be more than 1,000.

At 8.7 on the Richter scale, Monday's quake was the seventh biggest in the past 100 years. And it occurred under the sea, just 100 or so miles from the epicentre of the huge 9.0 quake that triggered December's tsunami. Everyone thought another wave was coming. Warnings went out and coastlines were evacuated from Malaysia to Sri Lanka. But this time it was a far more familiar story of an earthquake disaster. Not the incredibly widespread damage of the tsunami, but devastation caused by the quake itself, limited to a relatively small area. But with the same cruelty as the Boxing Day tsunami, much of the worst destruction was in remote areas, which relief workers have struggled to reach. Before Monday's quake, Nias was known as a popular surfing resort. Its remoteness was a large part of its charm.

International relief organisations and foreign troops, were already here in large numbers, working on the reconstruction effort in nearby Banda Aceh. But even with the head start, they have struggled to get aid to the island and have been slowed by bad weather.

Food is said to be running out and there is almost no clean drinking water. Outbreaks of diarrhoea were reported yesterday as well as the risk of malaria. Intensely humid, with frequent heavy rain, it is a breeding ground for disease.

One of the lessons of this quake appears to be the value of traditional building methods. Despite fears of widespread deaths on neighbouring islands, Simeulue has reported only 20 deaths, and a tribal chief on the Banyak islands says there have been none there.

The vital difference appears to be that most buildings on Simeulue and the Banyak islands were flimsy traditional structures, which did not hurt anybody when they fell. On Nias, the surfer tourism boom had thrown up a lot of concrete buildings, which collapsed and crushed people.

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