In Indonesia, it’s a challenge to recover the dead
By Todd Pitman
The Associated Press
TANJUNG, Indonesia –The rescue team had done everything it could to locate the body of man, who had been killed instantly when a massive earthquake collapsed his home Sunday night on the Indonesian island of Lombok.
They used hacksaws to cut a square into concrete wall. They used crowbars and dogs and a power drill. But by Tuesday afternoon, with the unmistakable stench of rotting flesh in the air, they were sweating and at their wits’ end. The body of 60-year-old Abdul Malik, one of at least 105 people killed in the 7.0-magnitude quake, would have to stay under the rubble for a third day.
“It’s taking far too long,” said 50-year-old Masini, the victim’s brother-in-law who watched more than a dozen helmeted emergency workers in orange jumpsuits drill into a thick layer of concrete.
The tragic scene underscored the challenges facing Indonesia’s government as it struggles to deal with its latest natural disaster. The quake shattered homes and lives across this vast archipelago, displacing more than 84,000 people, according to disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.
At least 4,600 foreign and Indonesian tourists also have been evacuated from three smaller islands off Lombok’s coast so far, Nugroho said. The islets are renowned for their crystal clear waters that draw snorkelers and divers from all over the world.
But with not enough boats to evacuate tourists quickly and too few planes to fly them out of Lombok, many visitors were forced to wait for hours or camp on beaches and the floor of the international airport in Mataram.
On the winding roads running north from the airport, which lead to destroyed villages shadowed by tall palm trees, the disaster’s impact was evident. Villagers fearing aftershocks could be seen camped by the thousands under makeshift blue tarpaulins held together with bamboo and sticks. Some held up simple cardboard signs begging for aid as ambulances and other vehicles raced by.
“We need food and water,” said one. “Please donate,” said another.
The international charity Oxfam said drinking water was scarce because of a recent spell of extremely dry weather in Lombok. Food, medical supplies, tarps and clothes are also urgently needed, it said.
By late Tuesday, the government appeared to be focused on finding bodies, and wherever possible, survivors.
Masini said his brother-in-law, Abdul Malik, who owned a small grocery store next to his home in Tanjung, was sitting in his living room with family when the catastrophe struck. Although his family managed to make it out, Abdul Malik was crushed by a thick concrete wall.
The rescuers are working “too slow,” Masini said. “They should be bringing in heavy equipment to speed this up.”
Aprintinus Titus, from the National Search and Rescue Agency, acknowledged they needed better tools. But he said “we will not give up until we pull him out of this rubble. We know how hard his family is suffering.”
A few kilometers (miles) up the road, rescuers earlier Tuesday pulled a single body from a pancaked pile of broken concrete and twisted rebar that once held together the multistory Jabal Nur Mosque, whose green dome had shattered and collapsed.
A 66-year-old village elder, Supardi, said a 6.4-magnitude quake that hit Lombok a week earlier had caused countless cracks in the mosque’s walls.
Those were going to be repaired, he said, but people were just getting over the first quake and more than half the village’s 1,500 people were sleeping outside.
Large earthquakes are often followed by less-powerful aftershocks. But “nobody expected a stronger quake would occur in such a short amount of time,” said Supardi, who said he was praying in the mosque when the tremor hit.
He described a roar that knocked out the electricity and sent people fleeing outside. “It destroyed everything,” he said.
Indonesia is prone to earthquakes because of its location on the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin. In December 2004, a massive magnitude 9.1 earthquake off Sumatra triggered a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.
By Tuesday evening, the search effort at the mosque ended after dogs failed to find more bodies and no other families reported missing loved ones there, said Anak Agung Alit Supartana, who heads the region’s Search and Rescue Agency office. There had been reports that dozens of people were killed at the site.
Supartana said two people had been found alive, along with three bodies. But the rescuers and heavy equipment were “very much needed elsewhere, so we decided to shift the operation” to other locations.
As it turned out, one was the crushed home of Masini’s brother-in-law. The teams and one excavator arrived after dark Tuesday to investigate. But officials said they would have to resume their search for the body there at first light Wednesday.
Associated Press journalists Andi Jatmiko and Niniek Karmini contributed.