Indonesia prepares for mass burial of quake dead

Sun Oct 4, 2009 8:04am EDT

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(Click [nSP24809] for more on Asia-Pacific disasters)

* Health minister estimates death toll could reach 3,000

* Villages destroyed by landslides, hundreds believed buried

* Thousands still feared trapped under rubble

* Foreign teams start to wind down rescue effort

* Shops and road-side food stalls reopening

By Razak Ahmad and Sunanda Creagh

PADANG, Indonesia, Oct 4 (Reuters) - Indonesians dug a pit for a mass burial in the earthquake shattered city of Padang on Sunday, while in nearby hills villagers with wooden hoes clawed in the mud in a near-hopeless search for hundreds entombed by landslides.

Rescue teams combing the rubble of Padang said there was little prospect of finding more survivors from a disaster that authorities say may have killed 3,000 people.

As relief workers pushed deeper inland from the coastal city, 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 40 km (25 miles) north of Padang, with 36 family members when Wednesday's 7.6 magnitude quake struck.

"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."

A pit had been dug in the Tunggul Hitam public cemetery in Padang for a mass burial of 11 unidentified bodies retrieved from the ruined Ambacang Hotel, a landmark in a town famous across Indonesia for its spicy cuisine and dramatic curved roofs.

A huge rescue operation at the hotel involving international teams with sniffer dogs had failed to find anyone alive inside.

MINARET COMPLETLEY BURIED

In remoter areas, the scale of the disaster was still becoming clear, with at least five villages swallowed by torrents of mud and rock. 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 areas.

"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."

But in other areas aid was still urgently needed.

"We haven't had any food except instant noodles for four days. There are lots of injured and we need medical help," said Hery, an official in Sungai Limau. A noticeboard by his office listed the names of the dead with ages ranging from 1 to 95.

BUILDINGS NOT QUAKE-PROOF

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, spokesman for the Indonesian Red Cross.

In a sign of a slow return to normalcy, shops had reopened in some parts of Padang and a pizza restaurant was crowded with diners. But close to the badly hit Chinatown district, six women were drawing filthy water from a monsoon drain.

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. [ID:nSP498004]

"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.

(For a graphic, click here) (Additional reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu in Jakarta and Thin Lei Win in Pariaman; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Alex Richardson)





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