Hundreds trapped in Indonesia quake rubble; more than 520 dead

Desperate residents dig with bare hands after more than 500 buildings collapse, including hospitals and a school. Overwhelmed officials appeal for help.

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Hundreds of people remained trapped in collapsed buildings today after two powerful earthquakes struck near Padang on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, killing at least 529 people.

The toll was expected to rise, with Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari saying it could soar into the thousands.

“Let’s be prepared for the worst,” Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in the capital, Jakarta, before boarding a flight for Padang.

Thursday’s magnitude 6.8 earthquake came a few hours after a magnitude 7.6 one Wednesday, leaving the city of 900,000 reeling.

“We are overwhelmed with victims and . . . . lack of clean water, electricity and telecommunications,” Padang Mayor Fauzi Bahar said on El Shinta radio.

“We call on people to come to Padang to evacuate bodies and help the injured,” he added. Television images showed desperate residents digging with their bare hands in hopes of freeing loved ones.

Supari told local station Metro TV, “This is a high-scale disaster,” as local officials appealed for heavy equipment to help free those buried in the rubble.

At least 500 buildings in Padang, the capital of West Sumatra province, collapsed in the two quakes, according to Disaster Management Agency spokesman Priyadi Kardono, including mosques, hospitals, a school and a shopping mall. A further 1,100 buildings were reportedly damaged in the nearby town of Jambi.

Rescue crews struggled to reach at least 80 people staying at downtown Padang’s five-story Ambacang hotel. At least 440 people were seriously injured in the earthquakes, according to a crisis center set up by the Social Affairs Ministry.

The Indonesian navy planned to dispatch six warships with emergency supplies to the area Friday, the Jakarta Post reported, including one vessel with 50 doctors and medical experts that is expected to serve as a mobile hospital.

Transport officials asked airlines not to raise ticket prices to Padang in spite of increased demand as people rushed to meet and help their relatives, although some reports said some domestic fares to the city had nearly doubled.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quakes were centered underwater about 150 miles south of Padang along the same fault line that spawned the Asian tsunami in late 2004 that killed 230,000 people in 12 countries.

The Al Jazeera satellite TV network reported that Padang’s mayor asked the central government for funds last year to bolster the city’s evacuation plans in the event of an earthquake but that his request was turned down.

The government today announced $10 million in emergency aid and said medical teams and military planes were being dispatched to set up field hospitals and distribute tents, medicine and food rations.

Rescue workers, already stretched, were further frustrated by rain, severed communication links and buckled roads that created huge traffic jams.

“What typically happens is that people become terrified to go back into their homes, especially if damaged, as there will be numerous aftershocks,” Jimmy Nadapdap, director of World Vision Indonesia, said on the aid group’s website. “Securing alternative shelter will be critical.”

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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