Quake Rescuers Race the Clock

Special to The Times

Rescuers on the island of Nias combed through the wreckage of collapsed buildings with crowbars and hammers Wednesday, freeing a man who had been trapped for 36 hours in the rubble of Monday’s earthquake.

Indonesian soldiers and foreign aid workers arrived on the island to help search for survivors of the devastating undersea temblor. But with little heavy equipment available to move the debris, the chance of finding many more victims alive was dwindling.

The United Nations said 518 people had been confirmed dead in the magnitude 8.7 quake. Indonesian officials said they expected the death toll to reach 1,000 to 2,000 on the islands off the west coast of Sumatra, including Nias, Simeulue and the small Banyak Islands.


“There are still many people under the wreckage of the buildings,” Vice President Jusuf Kalla told reporters in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. “Also, there are several small islands we are still evaluating.”

Despite its power, the temblor caused far less damage than the magnitude 9 quake and tsunami that killed as many as 280,000 people in 12 nations three months ago. The area hit hardest in that disaster was the nearby province of Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s major islands.

Aftershocks continued to shake the region Wednesday, including one that measured 6.3. Nevertheless, Nias residents’ fears of a tsunami began to subside, and many who had fled to higher ground Monday night returned to their ravaged neighborhoods.

Aid helicopters flew emergency supplies to the island, but some survivors complained of food shortages. Many shops were destroyed, and news agencies reported looting.

Retired Gen. Tiopan Bernhard Silalahi, who was dispatched to Nias by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to coordinate relief efforts, said cracks in the airport runway had prevented aid planes from landing. Heavy construction equipment began arriving by ship late Wednesday to aid in the search.

“The most important thing to do is to evacuate those badly injured victims from the island because the hospital here in Gunungsitoli is not functioning properly,” Silalahi said in an interview in Nias’ largest town. “The electricity is off, and the water too.”

The rescue effort was also hampered by fuel shortages and collapsed bridges. The steeple of Gunungsitoli’s main church was toppled in the quake. Churches, mosques and a Buddhist temple on the predominantly Christian island were being used as morgues.

Silalahi said 1,000 Indonesian soldiers had been deployed on Nias. Singapore and Australia also sent troops. The U.S. Navy dispatched two vessels, including the hospital ship Mercy, which was recently deployed off Aceh. The ships are expected to arrive next week.

Indonesian Army Capt. Ubaidillah, who had been aiding the recovery effort in Aceh, was sent with his battalion to Nias, where they were helping to pull bodies from the ruins.

By midday Wednesday, his unit had recovered seven bodies from a market area near the harbor; as Ubaidillah was being interviewed, the squad found an eighth.

The victim was a man of 24 whose clothes were so covered in dirt that their color could not be determined. The man’s sister cried loudly as the soldiers pulled the corpse free.

“It’s very hard,” said Ubaidillah, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name. “The bodies are under the wreckage. We do it manually.”

In another part of town, French firefighters rescued a 25-year-old man whose legs had been pinned in the ruins of a three-story building.

Using a car jack to lift the rubble, the crew freed television repairman Jansen Silalalahi, Associated Press reported. Silalalahi smiled weakly and gave a thumbs-up sign as he was carried away.

“People knew I was there, but it was difficult to reach me,” he said. “I kept screaming whenever I heard anyone. I feel relief because now I am safe.”

Special correspondent Tiba reported from Gunungsitoli, and Times staff writers Jouhana reported from Jakarta and Paddock from Kuta, Indonesia.