AFP – Whole villages in Indonesia’s quake zone were found obliterated by landslides Saturday, while rescuers searched desperately for up to 4,000 people believed to be still trapped in rubble.
The full extent of the damage from Wednesday’s 7.6-magnitude earthquake emerged as attention turned to the hundreds of villages in the hills outside Padang, a devastated city of one million at the centre of rescue efforts.
AFP journalists travelling from the coastal city on Sumatra island to the surrounding mountains encountered dozens of crumbled houses on the steep roads, and then four villages buried entirely by landslides.
Search and rescue officers from the local government said that up to 400 people could have perished in the four hillside villages alone, including a wedding party of 30 that was preparing for a ceremony nearby.
“The difficulty in this rescue operation is that the houses are buried under the soil as much as four metres (13 feet) deep,” the officer named Topan told AFP. “So far we have been using our hands to dig.”
One body was seen lying in a stream nearby, but Topan said he expected to find many more. The 100-strong rescue team was unable to bring in heavy machinery because of the broken, narrow roads.
Bob McKerrow, head of the Indonesia delegation of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, said aerial photos showed the extent of the damage in the mountainous outlying regions.
He said hundreds of villages were in the disaster zone, and that the few he had visited had all reported deaths and serious injuries.
“Typically in every village, there’s an old woman with a broken back, with a gash on her arm and she’s not moving. That’s why we’re sending in helicopters with medical teams,” he told AFP.
In Padang, where hardly a single building has been left undamaged, rescuers were racing against time to haul any survivors from schools, hotels and homes that have been reduced to tangles of concrete and rubble.
Specialist teams from Australia, Britain, Estonia, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, the United States and the United Arab Emirates have arrived or are travelling to the scene to help overwhelmed and exhausted local teams.
Hope was raised for survivors on Saturday when police said they had received an SMS text message from inside the ruined Dutch colonial-era Ambacang hotel, which has become a focal point for operations, drawing a crowd of hundreds.
“I think there could still be survivors,” said Yoshiaki Shimazu, the leader of a specialist team from Japan with rescue dogs at the scene. “The way the building fell, there could be voids.”
David Lange, a doctor for the SurfAid medical organisation, was inside the the building as it caved in and he sent colleagues a dramatic description of his escape that was passed on to AFP.
After escaping the building, he came to the aid of a woman in labour who was stuck in chaotic traffic on Saturday, and delivered her baby on the front seat of the vehicle.
“I just can’t believe I’m alive. The people right behind me didn’t make it out. The blocks from the hotel were falling all around me,” he wrote in his email, adding that many westerners remained inside.
The UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Indonesia El-Mostafa Benlamlih said between 3,000 and 4,000 people were trapped or buried in the rubble left by the quake.
Increasingly, the main task for emergency teams has been to pull bodies from the debris, many of which are beginning to decompose in the blazing sun.
The United Nations last estimated the death toll at 1,100 people while the government toll, which has not been revised since Thursday, stands at around 770.
“I think the death toll is going to rise dramatically. The current figure is going to be very low from listening to people working at the scene. There will certainly be more than 2,000,” McKerrow told AFP.
One lucky survivor was 20-year-old Ratna Kurnia Sari, who was pulled limp and covered in dust from the ruins of a college on Friday after spending 48 hours buried beneath rubble.
“I was telling myself ‘I must survive. I’ve got to see my 14-month-old boy grow up. I want to see him get big and become a good person,'” she told AFP from hospital.
The quake struck off Sumatra’s west coast northwest of Padang on Wednesday on a major faultline on the volatile “Ring of Fire” that scientists have long warned was a disaster waiting to happen.