Indonesian earthquake: 'They were sucked deep into the earth'

Aid workers reach remote areas beyond Padang to find entire villages levelled by last week's disaster

Kathy Marks
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:16
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In rural areas of Indonesia, weddings are communal, open-air affairs. Some 400 people attended the nuptials of a couple in Pulau Aiya, a village outside Padang, last Wednesday. Then the ground shook and swallowed everyone up.

"They were sucked 30m deep into the earth," Rustam Pakaya, head of the Indonesian Health Ministry's crisis centre, said yesterday. "Even the mosque's minaret, more than 20m tall, disappeared."

Three days after a 7.6-magnitude earthquake devastated Padang and surrounding areas on the west coast of Sumatra, the full impact of the tragedy is starting to become clear. Whole villages were found obliterated yesterday by rescuers pushing deeper into the disaster zone, where roads remain cut off and survivors – still desperately awaiting aid – are subsisting on coconut milk.

The official death toll from Wednesday's quake stood at 809 last night, but the Indonesian Red Cross believes up to 4,000 people are lying beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings. The chances of finding more survivors are receding by the hour. Rescuers, boosted by teams from Britain, Australia and Japan, among other countries, are pulling out body after body. The morgues are overflowing.

Still, extraordinary stories of survival are continuing to emerge. "Please help, I'm trapped, my position is in the house by the stairs." That brief text message, sent to his father in Jakarta nearly 600 miles away, saved Johnson Chandra's life after a four-storey building in Padang toppled, trapping him and his wife.

Mr Chandra tried without success to call relatives and friends on his mobile phone. "I was desperate," he said. "But I suddenly thought about texting, so I texted my dad to let him know where I was. Later I heard people coming, so I tried to make a sound. I found a small nail and started banging it. They finally found me. Slowly they broke concrete around me, and I was rescued 10 hours after the quake."

Another text was sent from the bowels of the Ambacang Hotel in Padang, but with a less happy outcome. Rescuers tunnelled through the ruins of the Dutch colonial-era hotel yesterday after the message alerted them to eight people alive inside. But sniffer dogs found no signs of life.

The Sumatra quake came hours after an 8.3-magnitude earthquake in the South Pacific triggered a tsunami that killed at least 164 people in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga. A two-year British boy was among the dead, and the Foreign Office is still trying to trace up to 16 British tourists who are unaccounted for.

This weekend the international aid effort in Sumatra has begun in earnest, with military and commercial planesflying in food, water and medicines. More than a dozen countries have aid workers on the ground, including doctors and engineers. Britain has sent 60 firefighters and an RAF aircraft full of emergency supplies, while Australia has dispatched a naval vessel carrying a mobile hospital and a Sea King helicopter.

Already in Padang is an Oxfam team distributing clothes, tarpaulins and hygiene kits, while 16 search-and-rescue experts from the organisation Rapid-UK arrived on Friday, armed with thermal cameras and lifting gear. Their presence was welcomed in Padang, where rescuers have been hampered by a lack of specialist skills and equipment.

The city of 900,000 people in West Sumatra province sits on one of the world's most active seismic fault lines, but Wednesday's quake – which was followed by a second powerful tremor on Thursday – was the biggest in memory. It shook buildings hundreds of miles away, in Malaysia and Singapore. In Padang, thousands of buildings, including hotels, hospitals, shopping malls, offices and mosques, were destroyed.

"The ground jumped up and down like this," said the Ambacang's general manager, Sarana Aji, gesticulating with his arms. He told The Australian newspaper: "It sounds like a train or something, and I just ran like I have never run before."

Up to 100 guests and visitors died when the hotel, which was popular with tourists, business people and government officials, collapsed. "It swayed and groaned, and then it just went," Mr Aji said. "It took less than 30 seconds."

The Ambacang was a prominent landmark in Padang, a city famous across Indonesia for its spicy cuisine and distinctive curved roofs. On Wednesday the hotel was hosting a seminar on life insurance. By Friday, rescuers shovelling through the tangled mountains of steel and masonry were giving up hope of finding more survivors when someone trapped inside texted a relative. The message begged for help and implored: "Be careful that the excavator doesn't cause the building to collapse on us."

Arkamelvi Karmani, an army officer at the site, said the eight people were believed to be on the sixth floor. But despite frantic efforts by search-and-rescue teams, who used backhoes and drills to penetrate thick slabs of concrete, they had not been found by nightfall.

As aid workers and government officials reached remote areas outside Padang, they found entire villages wiped out by landslides set off by the quake. As many as 644 people from three villages in the Pariaman district, close to the earthquake's epicentre, are believed to have been buried under mud and debris. The death toll from other villages is still unclear.

Television footage shot from the air showed uprooted trees and a bare brown hillside where a village once stood. In another spot, the remains of destroyed houses protruded from the mud, while other ruined homes hung precariously over the edge of a huge crater gouged through rice fields and forest. Survivors in the outlying areas are still waiting for aid. "We have not received a thing," said Siti Armaini, sitting outside her wrecked home in Pariaman, about 25 miles north of Padang. "We need food, clothes, blankets, milk. It seems like the government has forgotten about us."

Another local, Afiwardi, said it was too late for help. Pointing past a landslide that had cut off a road, he said: "Don't bother trying to bring aid up there. Everyone is dead."

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