Indonesia quake: Over 700 dead, rescue operations on

Last Updated: Saturday, October 3, 2009 - 00:12

Padang (Indonesia): Rescuers pulled two women alive from their collapsed college, nearly two days after a powerful earthquake devastated western Indonesia, as cries for help from a flattened hotel spurred the frantic search for more survivors Friday.
The government said nearly 3,000 may still be trapped under the rubble after Wednesday`s 7.6-magnitude quake toppled thousands of buildings on Sumatra island. At least 715 people are already confirmed dead. Paramedics laid out dozens of corpses, and the stench of decomposing bodies filled the air.

Some victims have yet to receive help. In a district north of the hard-hit city of Padang, stricken residents said they`d seen no rescue workers. Most structures there had been leveled, and people were using shovels and their bare hands to clear landslides and dig out bodies.

Against a grim backdrop of grief and destruction, rescuers found a reason to cheer: Ratna Kurniasari Virgo, 19, an English major sophomore, and a teacher, Susi Revika Wulan Sari, were found alive under the rubble of their college in Padang, the Foreign Language School of Prayoga.

Sari was extricated at 5:20 p.m. (1020 GMT, 6:20 a.m. EDT), almost exactly 48 hours the college crumbled in the 5.15 p.m. quake on Wednesday, and she was pinned down by the rubble among dead bodies of her students.

"She was conscious. Only her legs and fingers are swollen because she was squeezed," said the institute`s director, Teresia Lianawaty. "Thank God! It is a miracle."

Earlier Friday, Virgo was yanked out, also conscious, after a 40-hour ordeal of being trapped in the rubble.

With excited shouts and giving words of encouragement to each other, rescuers pulled Virgo hands-first from a hole drilled in the debris. Her olive-colored T-shirt almost spotless, Virgo was laid on a stretcher before being taken to hospital to be treated for a broken leg.

"She is fine, conscious and does not have any life-threatening injuries," said Nining Rosanti, a nurse, at the hospital.

Elsewhere in the city, at the site of the former Ambacang Hotel where as many as 100 were feared trapped, rescue workers detected signs of life under a hill of tangled steel, concrete slabs and broken bricks of the three-story structure, said Gagah Prakosa, a spokesman of the rescue team.

"We heard some voices of people under the rubble, but as you can see the damage is making it very difficult to extricate them," Prakosa said, as a backhoe cleared the debris noisily.

The voices were heard 44 hours after the disaster, giving hope that many lives could still be saved.

But as the first foreign relief teams made their way to the scene, Indonesian officials said a lack of heavy digging equipment was hampering the search.

"Heavy equipment and rescuers are our priority," said spokesman Priyadi Kardono of the Health Ministry`s national disaster management agency.

Kardono said Friday that 715 people have been confirmed dead and 2,400 hospitalized. UN spokeswoman Laksmita Noviera in Jakarta said the United Nations fears the toll could rise to 1,100.

That appeared a conservative estimate. Kardono said nearly 3,000 people may still be trapped under rubble. It is the first confirmed government figure for the missing, suggesting that the final death toll could be in the thousands.

The damage from the undersea quake was believed most extensive around Padang, a coastal town of 900,000 people and the capital of heavily populated West Sumatra province.

But about 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the north, in the rural, hilly district of Pariaman, which is home to about 370,000 people, an Associated Press reporter saw virtually no buildings still standing. The region was largely cut off and had received no outside help, leaving many to clear roads of landslides and dig out bodies using shovels and bare hands.

Officials said more than 10,000 homes and buildings had been destroyed there. It was unclear how many had died.

At a makeshift center for the homeless, dozens sheltered from the burning sun under a 15-by-30 foot (5-by-10 meter) canopy donated by a local business.

"It`s too crowded here at night. We need more space and we need more shelter," said resident Ahmad Razali. "I`m worried about looters. They are out there and the police are too busy to do anything. We haven`t gotten any help from the government yet."

Medical teams, search dogs, backhoes and emergency supplies, some of it given by other countries, were flown into Sumatra on Friday after Indonesia issued an appeal for international help.

"Please be patient," Indonesia`s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told the crowd of people whose relatives are missing, assuring them that the government was doing everything in its power to save lives.

But death was pervasive as bodies began decomposing in the tropical heat.

Paramedics laid out dozens of corpses at the Dr. M. Djamil General Hospital, Padang`s biggest, which also was partly damaged in the quake. The air was filled with the wail of ambulance sirens.

Anwari, who uses only one name, burst into tears when asked who he was waiting for outside the hospital.

"Don`t ask me about my daughter ... She is still missing," Anwari said, between sobs. "Please don`t ask me ... it reminds me of her." He was too distraught to say anything more.

With communications and power supplies still down in many areas, fuel was being rationed to focus on locating the missing.

Twenty-eight tons of supplies, including water, medicine and basic food provisions, were flown into regional airports to be distributed to the needy. Aid workers handed tents to some of the tens of thousands of people made homeless, disaster management spokesman Kardono said.

Russia sent two planeloads of supplies, along with doctors and nurses to treat the seriously injured.

Also donating millions of dollars in aid and financial assistance were governments and charities of Australia, Britain, China, Germany, Japan, the European Union, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Denmark and the United States, Indonesian officials said.

President Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, pledged to support earthquake recovery efforts there, as well as provide assistance to the South Pacific countries of Samoa and American Samoa, which were hit by a deadly tsunami Tuesday. The United States pledged $3.3 million in immediate assistance to Indonesia.

Indonesia sits on a major geological fault zone and experiences dozens of quakes every year. Wednesday`s quake originated on the same fault line that spawned the 2004 Asian tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.

It was the deadliest since May 2006, when more than 3,000 people died in the city of Yogyakarta.

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani said the government has allocated $25 million for a two-month emergency response. She said the earthquake will seriously affect Indonesia`s economic growth, because West Sumatra is a main producer of crude palm oil.

Bureau Report

First Published: Saturday, October 3, 2009 - 00:12

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