Hopes fade for Indonesia quake survivors

Rescue teams combing the rubble in the shattered Indonesian city of Padang said on Sunday there was little hope of finding more survivors of a massive earthquake that authorities say may have killed 3 000 people.

As relief workers pushed deeper into earthquake-hit Sumatra, they found entire villages obliterated by landslides and homeless survivors desperate for food, water and shelter.

”I am the only one left,” said Zulfahmi (39) who was in the village of Kapalo Koto, near Pariaman, about 40km north of Padang, with 36 family members when Wednesday’s 7,6 magnitude quake triggered a landslide.

”My child, my wife, my mother-in-law, they are all gone. They are under the earth now.”

Indonesia’s health minister, Siti Fadillah Supari, told Reuters by telephone that the government estimated the death toll could reach 3 000, adding that disease was becoming a concern, especially in Padang city, where a pervading stench of decomposing bodies hangs over the ruined buildings.

”We are trying to recover people from the debris, dead or alive. We are trying to help survivors to stay alive. We are now focusing on minimising post-quake deaths,” she said.

In Padang, a port city of 900 000 that was once a centre of the spice trade, rescuers picked through collapsed buildings to look for perhaps thousands of people still buried.

”We are doing final checks before we can declare the rescue phase is over. We think it’s the end of the rescue phase,” said British rescue worker Peter Old, of Rapid UK.

”There’s very little chance of finding people alive. It’s the beginning of a ramping down in rescue work.”

The Chinatown area of Padang, consisting of a maze of ageing shophouses, was devastated by the quake.

In the same area, hopes were fading of finding survivors in the ruins of the Dutch-colonial era Ambacang Hotel, a landmark in a town famous across Indonesia for its spicy cuisine and dramatic curved roofs.

A person believed to be trapped in the building, where an insurance company was holding a seminar, sent an SMS on Friday to a relative saying that eight people were still alive in the ruins.

Members of Padang’s small Christian community prayed at an outdoor mass and wedding on Sunday held after the 77-year-old Dutch built St Theresa cathedral was badly damaged.

”The whole wall where the altar was located has collapsed at the church,” said Wim Sanuardi, an official at St Theresa.

Padang is known in predominantly Muslim Indonesia as a staunchly devout area and a nearby mosque was also damaged.

”This tragedy, though causing a lot of suffering and death, is a sign that God still loves the people of Padang. That’s why we got a reminder to correct our ways,” said Mohammad Hatta, a Muslim who was at the Abdul Ghani mosque helping clear rubble.

Mass funerals were also starting to take place on Sunday.

Padang lies on one of the most active faultlines in the world, but a geologist said the city had been ill-prepared and remained at risk of being wiped out in the next decade by a more powerful earthquake.

”I think Padang is totally unprepared. Generally, the existing structures are not designed to be quake-proof and that’s why the devastation is so great,” said Danny Hilman Natawidjaja from the Indonesian Science Institute.

Indonesia’s Papua and the island of Sulawesi suffered smaller quakes on Sunday, although there were no reports of damage.

In remoter areas, the scale of the disaster was still becoming clear, with at least five villages swallowed by landslides. One landslide hit a wedding party.

”In the villages in Pariaman, we estimate about 600 people died,” said Rustam Pakaya, head of the Health Ministry’s crisis centre. Pariaman, closer to the epicentre, is one of the worst-affected.

”In one of the villages, there’s a 20-metre-high minaret, it was completely buried, there’s nothing left, so I presume the whole village is buried by a 30-metre deep landslide.”

In another rural area, a resident said it was too late for aid.

”Don’t bother trying to bring aid up there,” said Afiwardi, who pointed past a landslide that cut off a road. ”Everyone is dead.”

Indonesia’s disaster agency said 20 000 buildings had been damaged in the quake, with most government offices destroyed.

”Such widespread infrastructure damage will make it hard for the city to bounce back,” said Eko Suhadi, spokesperson for the Indonesian Red Cross. – Reuters

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