Indonesia teen who amputated his leg recalls earthquake ordeal

The teenager lay dazed amid the settling dust and debris, his leg trapped by a fallen concrete wall. He sensed that he was going to die. So he made a decision: He would cut off his own limb to save his life.

Ignoring the major blood loss, taking deep breaths as he concentrated on the terrible task at hand, the 18-year-old construction worker cut halfway through his right leg just below the kneecap.

Finally, too weak to continue, he begged for help, and a fellow worker finished the job for him in the aftermath of the magnitude 7.6 earthquake that struck Sumatra in September.

“I didn’t want to die in that place,” said the teenager, who goes by one name, Ramlan. “I did what I had to do to stay alive.”

Every disaster delivers its own tales of bravery and superhuman strength. Amid the news reports of his exploits, Ramlan has become a hero across Indonesia, a survivor whose sheer will to live drove him to do the unthinkable.


“He showed us all just how precious life is,” said a man named Amar who works in a motorcycle shop here. “He’s got guts.”

Yet Ramlan is also still a humble teen, more boy than man, who now worries about his future as he struggles to forget a painful chapter of his life.

A few days ago he returned to his village of Galudra and the small house with bright orange and yellow walls where his family treats him like royalty.

His parents fluff his pillows and lovingly rub his body. When visitors arrive, his father, Dedi, a 50-year-old banana farmer, helps his son put on a Marilyn Manson T-shirt.

His two older brothers take turns lying next to him on the single bed with the Tom and Jerry headboard, placed in a prime location so Ramlan can watch TV and feel the soft breeze that blows in through the open front door.

For days, as he recovered from his amputation, still not sure whether he’d live or die, Ramlan kept his mother in the dark about his condition. She was hundreds of miles away, at home in the village, and he told her he’d suffered a few minor injuries and would be OK.

“He told me that he had a broken leg,” said Syikar, 46, who sat at the edge of her son’s bed wearing a maroon robe. “He didn’t want to worry me.”

With a sixth-grade education, unable to find work in the West Java village of 1,500 people, Ramlan had left home a month before to take a construction job in the Sumatran city of Padang.

On the evening of Sept. 30, he was getting ready to head home to the cramped two-bedroom house he shared with 18 other workers when he felt a minor jolt. A minute later, the building was slammed by a major quake that killed more than 1,000 people and devastated the city.

He and the other young workers on the seventh floor screamed and fell. Then they ran for the stairway of the unfinished building. Ramlan didn’t make it. He felt a wall crash down on him.

He tried to move his right leg, but it “felt like rubber.” So he made his decision to escape the building any way he could.

He grabbed a trowel and tried to saw through the leg, but he quickly found the end too dull. He used a small spade, but that too failed. Then he spotted a handsaw just beyond his reach. He used his cellphone to call Eman, a 56-year-old fellow worker whom Ramlan had met only weeks before.

Risking his own life, Eman hurried into the shattered building. He begged the young man not to continue. But Ramlan was determined to get free, so Eman handed over the saw. Wincing in pain, Ramlan slowly began to cut.

“I tried not to think about anything,” he recalled, absent-mindedly tousling his hair. “I felt my nerves coming off. The bone was the worst. It was hot. I could feel the heat inside my bone.”

But Ramlan was losing so much blood that he soon weakened. He turned to the five workers who by now had gathered around him, some crying, pleading with him to stop.

“I called out, ‘Please help me! You have to finish this!’ No one stepped forward. I had to beg them.”

Finally, Eman again stepped up, holding out his hand to take the saw from the teen he calls Adik, or “little brother.”

He quickly finished the task and then carried Ramlan out of the building. Days later, Eman visited him in the hospital. There were no tears, but the bond between the two ran deep.

“We both apologized to each other,” Ramlan recalled. “I said I was sorry for begging him to do something so terrible. And he apologized to me for having to do something so terrible to me.”

Ramlan didn’t think he would ever walk again, which made him feel like dying.

“He told me, ‘If I can’t walk, what’s the use of living?’ ” his mother said.

When the cellphone company that owned the building where he was injured offered to buy him an artificial leg, Ramlan’s will to live returned. He’s thinking about the future again, talking about one day opening a motorcycle repair shop.

He blushed when told that he was Indonesia’s newest hero.

He said it wasn’t courage that drove him. No, it was something else.

“When you are in a situation like that,” he said slowly, “you do what you have to do.”