Aid push to villages wiped out by Indonesia quake

PADANG, Indonesia Sun Oct 4, 2009 7:21pm EDT

1 of 16. Relatives of a victim, who died inside the Ambacang Hotel which collapsed, cry after hearing news of the death in the earthquake-hit area of Padang, West Sumatra province October 4, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Nicky Loh

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PADANG, Indonesia (Reuters) - Rescuers and aid workers were fanning out on Monday into the hills of Indonesia's Sumatra island, where hundreds of people were buried in landslides triggered by an earthquake that may have killed 3,000.

In the shattered city of Padang, which bore the brunt Wednesday's 7.6 magnitude quake, unidentified victims pulled from the rubble were due to be laid to rest. Relief workers said there was little hope of finding anyone else alive in the ruins.

"The search and rescue will end in a couple of days," said Sjaak Seen, deputy team leader, United Nations Disaster Assessment Coordination. "Normally, if you are under the rubble more than 72 hours you have only a minor chance of survival."

While aid and international rescue teams have poured into Padang, a port city of 900,000, help has been slow to reach remoter inland areas, with landslides cutting many roads.

When rescuers arrived 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 the quake struck.

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

Health officials said five villages had been buried in torrents of mud and rock torn out of the lush green hills by the force of the quake.

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

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

FEARS OF DISEASE

On Sunday, people were still digging at the landslide sites with wooden hoes, but the chances of finding anyone alive beneath the wet, compacted red earth appeared hopeless.

For the survivors, 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 one to 95.

Indonesia's health minister, Siti Fadillah Supari, said 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 minimizing post-quake deaths," she said.

Workers were due to begin spraying the wreckage with disinfectant, while at a public cemetery in Padang a pit had been dug where 11 unidentified bodies retrieved from the ruined Ambacang Hotel were due to be buried on Monday.

The hotel, a Dutch colonial-era landmark, had been the focus of a huge rescue operation involving international teams with sniffer dogs, but by Sunday no one had been found alive.

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.

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.

(Additional reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu in Jakarta and Thin Lei Win in Pariaman; Writing by Alex Richardson)

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