Rescuers dug feverishly on Friday through the rubble of a school and other buildings toppled by an earthquake in the Indonesian port of Padang, but few victims were being found alive two days after the tremor.
The United Nations said more than 1,000 had been killed in and around the city of 900,000, which sits atop one of the world’s most active seismic fault lines along the “Ring of Fire”.
Aid to thousands of displaced survivors started trickling in, but rescue operations have been hampered by power blackouts and a lack of heavy equipment to shift fallen masonry.
A giant excavator donated by a cement company tore through piles of twisted iron and rubble, the wreckage of a three-storey college. Dozens of students were attending after-school lessons there when the quake struck on Wednesday afternoon with a force felt in neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.
“We have pulled out 38 children since the quake. Some of them, on the first day, were still alive, but the last few have all been dead,” said rescue team leader Suria, who like many Indonesians, uses just one name.
“There are still a lot of corpses in there. You can smell it. They are towards the back where we can’t reach. The problem is a lot of buildings around here weren’t very well built.”
The U.N. humanitarian chief, John Holmes, told a news conference at U.N. Headquarters in New York that some 1,100 people had been killed in the 7.6 magnitude quake.
Thousands more were feared trapped under damaged houses, hospitals, hotels and schools, Holmes said.
On Thursday night rescuers located two women still alive in the debris of a language school. One of the women, Sari, a 21-year-old student at the school was freed on Friday to the applause of a crowd that had gathered to watch the rescue.
But the family of Suci, who was lying next to Sari but pinned under concrete, were still waiting anxiously for her to be freed.
“I hope she can get out today. I went into the tunnel and I could hear her voice. I could see her hand,” said her husband.
Indonesia’s health minister said the destruction did not appear to be as extensive as first feared, but said the number killed could still number in the low thousands.
“I predict the number will not reach 4,000,” Siti Fadillah Supari was quoted as saying by news website detik.com.
The three provinces affected by Wednesday’s disaster, and a second quake inland on Thursday, are major producers of rubber, palm oil, coal and other commodities, although together they accounted for less than 3 percent of Indonesia’s overall GDP, according to a report by Bank Danamon in Jakarta.
“Total merchandise exports from these three regions only contribute less than 2 percent of total exports nationwide. So the disaster may not have a substantial impact on Indonesia’s exports,” said economist Helmi Arman at Bank Danamon.
Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, has at times descended into chaos, with fuel in short supply, some shops running out of food and many residents scrambling to find clean water. Many roads in the region have been severed by landslides.
Conditions in Pariaman, nearer the quake’s epicentre, may be even worse, with reports of buildings flattened. Conditions in more remote areas in the mountainous hinterland were unknown.
OPEN AIR MORGUE
Patients evacuated from Padang’s badly damaged main hospital were being cared for in tents. Corpses placed in yellow body bags were lined up at an open-air morgue.
Yunas Lubis stood weeping at the morgue on Friday, holding his baby granddaughter, mourning for his dead son-in-law.
“My daughter’s husband was just pulled out of a building this morning. He was trapped there for two days,” he said. “Why did it take so long to get him out? It was too late.”
Australia, South Korea and Japan were among countries offering aid. U.S. President Barack Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a child, also offered assistance.
“Indonesia is an extraordinary country that’s known extraordinary hardship with natural disasters,” he said.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who returned from the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh a day earlier, toured the disaster area on Friday and said $10 million in relief would be put to work fast.
“The 100 billion rupiah fund must flow, no more red tape. This is an emergency, the race is important,” Yudhoyono said in Pariaman, close to the epicentre of the quake.
(Additional reporting by Telly Nathalia in Jakarta and Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong; Writing by Ed Davies and Alex Richardson; )
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