Workers briefly stopped tearing down the remnants of a hotel damaged in Indonesia's earthquake when someone said they heard a woman crying out today for help from beneath the rubble six days after the disaster. A rescue team went in - clambering through holes drilled into concrete slabs that were once the walls of the busy Ambacang hotel - only to emerge later to report no signs of life.
The episode underscored the agony of the families of thousands of people who are missing after last Wednesday's 7.6-magnitude quake collapsed buildings in the Sumatran city of Padang and sent landslides crashing down onto villages in the surrounding hills. The official death toll rose on Tuesday to 704 and could reach into the thousands, officials said. "I've been coming here every day for any kind of news," said Firmansyah Blis, a hotel guest whose wife is among the missing.
"I doubt she is alive. I think the search crews tried hard to find her. I just want them to find her body." A hotel worker said he heard a woman's faint cries coming from within the hotel's remnants, even over the roar of backhoes and other machines that were clearing away the building's collapsed roof. "When I walked among the rubble, I heard a weak voice screaming 'Help, help, help'," the worker said.
"I am confident it was from a woman who survived. Her voice was getting weaker and fading away." That was enough for officials, who sent three rescuers back into the rubble. "We stopped for a moment so that rescuers could check if there really was a voice," said Lt Col Haris, an army officer helping in the recovery operation. Work tearing down the damaged building and clearing the wreckage resumed after the rescue team returned. The broader search for survivors was halted on Monday, five days after the 7.6-magnitude quake struck off the coast of Western Sumatra.
Aid workers from at least 20 countries were focused on caring for the hundreds of thousands left homeless. Six helicopters shuttled instant noodles, blankets, milk and other aid to the isolated hillside villages of the Padang Pariaman district, where landslides buried more than 600 people, said Ade Edward, the head of operations control at West Sumatra's Center for Disaster Management. "We have stopped looking for living survivors and are maximising the use of heavy equipment," he said. "We hope to clear the rubble in two weeks so we can start reconstruction."
On Monday, hundreds of children went back to classes in schools set up in tents supplied by Unicef. In the old market area, stalls were full of food and bustling with residents stocking up on vegetables, fruit and fish. Rows of stalls were still smoking from fires that broke out after the quake, possibly from electrical short circuits. Shopkeepers working beside cracked walls and teetering buildings swept up the mess of concrete and broken glass.
The city of 900,000 resembled a sprawling demolition site with houses, mosques, schools, a mall and hotels brought down. Emergency workers faced an uphill battle trying to reach remote communities in the hills of Pariaman where whole villages were wiped out by landslides. The force of the quake gouged out mountainsides and dumped tons of mud, boulders and trees, burying hundreds of people alive.
Heavy rain since Sunday and thick wet mud also made it difficult for aid workers to reach the struck areas, said Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for the Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency. The Meteorological and Geophysics Agency warned the region could see strong winds and storms for the next two days. It was unclear precisely how many people are without shelter, but more than 88,000 houses were flattened, UN and Indonesian agencies said.
Another 100,000 public buildings were damaged. Aburizal Bakrie, a government minister, said $600 million was needed to repair infrastructure. *AP