Thousands Trapped in Indonesia After Sumatra Earthquake


Thousands of people are believed to be trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings and hundreds may have been killed in West Sumatra’s capital, Padang, after a strong 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck the province at about 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday.


“Reports from the mayor of Padang said that the number of people trapped under the rubble of collapsed houses and shophouses are in the thousands,” said Vice President Jusuf Kalla, speaking after an emergency meeting in Jakarta on the quake.


Kalla said late on Wednesday that the death toll had already reached 75 but warned that it would climb sharply as many were still trapped. “It’s hard to tell because there is heavy rain and a blackout,” he said.


Priyadi Kardono, a spokesman for the national disaster agency, said early this morning that about 500 houses had caved in and around 100 people were buried under the rubble, according to officials in the area.


Hundreds of residents were reported to be trapped under rubble in the Kampung Cina area of Padang, one of the city’s busy commercial districts that suffered heavy damage. Also reported was that the Andale Bridge, one of the city’s main bridges, had collapsed, and that landslides triggered by the quake had cut all roads to Padang.


Abu Hanifah, a worker at Padang’s immigration office, told ElShinta radio he saw many police officers, soldiers and paramedics on the streets as he was heading home from Minangkabau International Airport, after his flight was canceled and the airport closed. “Maybe because there are so many buildings that had collapsed,” Abu said, adding that the damage appeared to be spread across the city.


Telephone lines and most cellphone services had been disrupted across West Sumatra, a spokesman for the Ministry of Communication, Gatot Dewa Broto, confirmed. Contact with Padang has been sporadic.


The quake was centered about 70 kilometers west of Padang at a depth of 71 km below the sea floor.


“This is a high-scale disaster, more powerful than the earthquake in Yogyakarta in 2006 when more than 3,000 people died,” Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari told journalists late on Wednesday night, referring to the 6.3-magnitude quake that rocked the city.


Geologists have warned that Padang, a sprawling low-lying city with a population of about 900,000, was vulnerable to a massive earthquake or tsunami. The area was hit by an 8.4-magnitude quake in September 2007, in which dozens of people died. The city sits on one of the world's most active fault lines along the "Ring of Fire" where the Indo-Australia plate grinds against the Eurasia plate to create regular tremors and sometimes quakes. This fault was responsible for the 9.1-magnitude quake, with its epicentre roughly 600 km northwest of Padang, on Dec. 26, 2004, that led to the tsunami which killed 232,000 people on Sumatra and in countries across the Indian Ocean.


A tsunami warning was issued immediately after Thursday's quake by the national geophysics office, but was lifted an hour afterwards. Thousands of residents, fearing a killer wave, attempted to flee to higher ground east and north of the city, causing widespread traffic gridlock. Many were reported to have abandoned their cars in the congestion to wait on open ground nearby.


Rustam Pakaya, the head of the Ministry of Health’s Crisis Center, said teams of doctors and paramedics had left Palembang and Medan with medicine, equipment and relief supplies to set up a field hospital in Padang. An additional team of 30 doctors would fly from Jakarta early today, he added.


Kalla said six ministers, including the health minister and Social Affairs Minister Bachtiar Chamsyah, would be transported by military aircraft to the disaster site. The ministers will also bring aid, including tents, generators, blankets, food and water.


“Whatever the number of affected people, we will give them two consecutive months of aid because the conditions of the quake were much worse than the recent one in West Java,” Kalla said, referring to the 7.3-magnitude quake that hit the southern coast of West Java on Sept. 2.


By nightfall, state-owned news agency Antara reported that most Padang residents had opted to erect makeshift shelters in open spaces, or in their yards, afraid to spend the night inside buildings.


In Padang Pariaman, close to the epicenter of the earthquake, heavy rains prompted many residents to remain near their homes and not flee, a local resident told Metro TV news.


Bambang Ervan, a spokesman from the Ministry of Transportation, said Minangkabau International Airport had only suffered superficial damage, mostly just falling ceiling panels in the terminal building, but authorities decided to shut down operations anyway to conduct inspections. “We plan to reopen [today],” Ervan said.


At Lake Maninjau, some 140 kilometers north of Padang, the quake caused landslides, a resident named Hafiz told Metro TV, although he said he had not heard of any casualties or deaths.


Source: The JakartaGlobe (01/10/2009)