PADANG, Indonesia, (Reuters) – A huge aid effort for victims of a devastating earthquake in Indonesia was gaining momentum on Saturday, but three days after the disaster struck rescuers were only starting to reach some stricken communities.
Fresh aid supplies were due to arrive at Jakarta’s main airport for transfer to the disaster area, 915 km (570 miles) northwest of the capital on the island of Sumatra. Aid was also being shipped from the port of Tanjung Priok in the capital.
The 7.6 magnitude quake hit the port of Padang on Wednesday afternoon with a force that shook buildings hundreds of miles away in Singapore and Malaysia, destroying thousands of buildings in the city and surrounding areas.
The United Nations said more than 1,000 had been killed in and around Padang, a city of 900,000 that sits atop one of the world’s most active seismic fault lines along the Pacific “Ring of Fire”. Thousands more were feared to be still trapped.
Rescue teams, many wearing masks to cover the stench of bodies as they worked in the tropical heat, were starting to fan out from Padang to some of the worst-hit surrounding areas.
TV footage from Pariaman, closer to the quake’s epicentre, showed a whole hillside where several villages were located had collapsed, leaving just barren red earth and the odd fallen tree.
In Padang, eight people were believed to still be trapped under the rubble of the ruined Dutch-colonial era Ambacang Hotel. A rescue attempt was being helped by international rescue teams, including sniffer dogs from Japan and Swiss team. “We think there are eight people alive in there. One sent an SMS to a relative in a village, who got the text at 3 p.m. yesterday,” said Arkamelvi Karmani, an army officer involved in the rescue operation at the site of the hotel.
The official said the telephone text message had called for help and also implored rescuers: “Be careful that the excavator doesn’t cause the building to collapse on us.”
The trapped people were believed to be the 6th floor and rescue teams were building a tunnel into the rubble in a bid to reach them.
“We think there are 40 bodies left in the hotel,” said Karmani. A seminar organised by an insurance company had been taking place in the hotel when the disaster hit.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono toured the disaster area on Friday 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.
Indonesia’s health minister said the destruction did not appear to be as extensive as first feared, but said the number killed could till 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.
Indonesia’s disaster management agency said the number of dead and missing confirmed so far was 806.
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 percent of Indonesia’s overall GDP, according to a report by Bank Danamon in Jakarta.
Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, has been struggling with a shortage of clean water and fuel.
Aid had arrived from 14 countries, the National Disaster Mitigation Agency said, and specialist rescue teams from countries including Australia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea had arrived or were en route.