Combing the rubble: Two members of Australia’s Queensland Search and Rescue team look for victims in the wreckage of a damaged building in Padang, West Sumatra, on Sunday. Authorities estimate Tuesday’s 7.6-magnitude earthquake may have killed about 3,000 people. JP/J. Adiguna
West Sumatra decided Sunday to turn a hillside in Padang Pariaman regency, where three hamlets and hundreds of villagers were swallowed by landslides after a powerful earthquake, into mass graves, as hopes faded for more survivors.
“The decision on the mass grave was agreed today in a meeting with local leaders. There is little possibility of survivors and we are prioritizing those with a higher chance of survival,” said West Sumatra administration spokesman Dede Nuzul Putra in Padang, the provincial capital.
“The victims have been buried more than five days, it is unlikely they could survive."
The hamlets of Kapalo Koto, Cumanak and Lubuk Laweh in Patamuan district disappeared along with 400 people when the 7.6-magnitude quake hit West Sumatra last Wednesday, swallowing them up in a torrent of mud and rocks .
The landslides produced an area of devastation at least five kilometers wide, making it difficult for rescuers to find the victims.
Padang Pariaman Regent Muslim Kasim said Sunday only 28 bodies have been retrieved from the area of the hamlets since Thursday after the arrival of three excavators. Few in the area survived the disaster.
However, a joint rescue team consisting of local people, the National Search and Rescue Team, military and police personnel, and foreign volunteers, were still working to locate victims.
“According to the existing regulation, any area where a landslide occurs has to be closed to any [future] settlement,” said Priyadi Kardono, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency.
He added that following disaster management operating procedures, efforts to locate victims would continue until a week after the disaster.
“After that period, we will ask whether victims' families agree to the bodies not being retrieved. Should they demand that the search continue, we would continue.”
There is no clear word on the total death toll from the quake. The UN put the toll at 1,100.
The government earlier said 715 were dead and 3,000 missing, but later revised the figure Sunday to say 605 people were confirmed dead and 960 missing, presumed dead.
The missing include those buried in the landslides.
Elsewhere in Parit Malintang district in Padang Pariaman, one of the hardest-hit regencies, hundreds of children lined up in the streets Sunday begging for donations from motorists as aid had yet to reach them four days after the quake.
Jasmani, a 55-year-old widow with eight children in South Parit Malintang, whose house was toppled by the quake, said she had to order her children to beg for donations in the streets.
"This is what we received," she said, displaying one kilogram of rice and a packet of biscuits.
Aid and rescue efforts have been concentrated in Padang, a coastal city of 900,000 people where several tall buildings collapsed and hundreds died.
The quake was equally devastating in Padang Pariaman, where rescuers have all but given up hope of finding any survivors in the rubble of the 140-room, Dutch-colonial style Ambacang Hotel. Around 200 people were in the hotel when it collapsed. Search teams have found 29 bodies and no survivors in the last two days.
“After four days, finding survivors is almost impossible," Lt. Col. Harris, the chief of the 50-member rescue team, which comprises military, police and Red Cross personnel, said as quoted by Reuters.
“The smell of decomposing bodies was very strong."
According to the National Disaster Management Agency, 83,700 houses, 200 public buildings and 285 schools were destroyed. Another 100,000 buildings and 31 kilometers of road were badly damaged, and five bridges have collapsed.
Hundreds of doctors, nurses, search and rescue experts and cleanup crews arrived Saturday at the Padang airport from around the world with tons of food, tents, medicine, clean water, generators and a field hospital.
With no electricity, fuel shortages and telecommunication outages, the massive operation was chaotic.
Deliveries came on C-130 cargo planes from the US, Russia and Australia. Japanese, Swiss, South Korean and Malaysian search and rescue teams scoured the debris. Tens of millions of dollars in donations came from more than a dozen countries to supplement the US$400 million the Indonesian government said it would spend over the next two months.
The UN said there were sufficient fuel stocks in the area for only four days, but with the road to a major depot cut off by landslides, gasoline prices had jumped six-fold. Areas with "huge levels of damage to infrastructure were in need of basic food and tents for temporary shelter", it said.