Padang: Aid for thousands of survivors of an earthquake in the Indonesia port of Padang began trickling in on Friday, but rescue efforts were hampered by power blackouts and a lack of heavy equipment to shift masonry.
The United Nations said more than 1,000 had been killed in Wednesday’s quake in and around the city of 900,000, which sits atop one of the world’s most active seismic fault lines along the Pacific “Ring of Fire”.
Overstretched rescuers dug through the rubble of schools and other buildings, occasionally locating survivors but more often retrieving bodies.
“So far victims have received aid but we need to intensify it,” said Indonesian Red Cross chief Marie Muhammad. “There are still many roads cut off because of landslides.”
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono toured the disaster area 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.
Governments in Taiwan and the Philippines have come in for fierce criticism in recent weeks for a perceived slow response to disasters, but Jakarta-based political analyst Kevin O’Rourke said Yudhoyono was unlikely to suffer a similar backlash.
“Yudhoyono is the type of politician who tends to convey the type of image that people, I think, seek when these disasters happen,” said O’Rourke of the former general with a common touch.
A giant excavator donated by a cement company tore through piles of twisted iron and rubble, the wreckage of a three-storey college in Padang. 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.
The UN humanitarian chief, John Holmes, told a news conference at UN 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 Friday, rescuers pulled out alive a 21-year-old student, named Sari, from the wreckage of a language school, to the applause of a crowd that had gathered to watch.
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.
Metro TV said at least eight survivors were detected inside the ruined Dutch-colonial era Ambacang Hotel. Kyodo news agency reported a Japanese rescue team with sniffer dogs was leading the effort to free them.
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% 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% 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 been struggling with a shortage of clean water and water.
Conditions in Pariaman, a small city nearer the quake’s epicentre, may be even worse, with thousands of houses reported to have collapsed. Conditions in more remote areas in the mountainous hinterland were unknown.
TV footage from the Pariaman area showed a whole hillside where several villages were located had collapsed, leaving just barren earth and the odd fallen tree.
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 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.”
International aid pledges poured in and specialist rescue teams from countries including Australia, Japan Singapore and South Korea had arrived in Padang or were en route to the disaster zone.
US 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.