Indonesian rescuers sift through earthquake debris; 268 dead

CIANJUR, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesian rescue workers on Tuesday used jackhammers, circular saws and sometimes their bare hands to move debris from flattened buildings as they searched for the dead and missing from an earthquake that killed at least 268 people.

With many missing, some remote areas still unreachable and more than 1,000 people injured in the magnitude 5.6 quake, the death toll was likely to rise. Hospitals near the epicenter on the populous island of Java were already overloaded and patients connected to IVs lay on stretchers and cots in tents set up outside, awaiting further treatment.

Indonesia is regularly hit by earthquakes, many much stronger than Monday’s, the size of which usually causes minor damage. But experts said the quake’s shallowness and inadequate infrastructure contributed to the severe damage, including collapsed roofs and large piles of bricks, concrete and corrugated iron.

The quake hit the rural, mountainous district of Cianjur, where a woman said her house began to “shake like it was dancing.”

“I was crying and immediately grabbed my husband and children,” says Partinem, who, like many Indonesians, has only one name. The house collapsed shortly after she escaped with her family.

“If I hadn’t pulled them out, we might have been victims too,” she said, staring over the pile of broken concrete and wood.

More than 2.5 million people live in the Cianjur district, of which about 175,000 live in the capital of the same name.

The quake struck at a depth of 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) and also sparked panic in the capital Jakarta, about three hours away, where high-rises swayed and some people evacuated.

Suharyanto, head of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, who goes by one name, told reporters that 1,083 people were injured and at least 151 missing. But not all of the dead have been identified, so it’s possible that some of the bodies recovered from the rubble belong to people on the missing list.

Rescue operations have targeted about a dozen locations in Cianjur, where people are still trapped, said Endra Atmawidjaja, the spokesman for public works and housing.

“We are racing against time to save people,” Atmawidjaja said.

Initial rescue efforts were hampered by damaged roads and bridges, power outages and a lack of equipment to move the heavy debris. Power and telephone communications began to improve on Tuesday, and Atmawidjaja said seven excavators and 10 large trucks had been brought in from neighboring areas to clear roads.

In the village of Cijedil, the quake triggered a landslide that blocked streets and buried several houses, said Henri Alfiandi, head of the National Search and Rescue Agency.

“We are maximizing operations at several points where casualties are suspected. Our team is also trying to reach remote areas,” he said.

Many of the dead were public school students who had finished their classes for the day and were taking extra classes at Islamic schools when the buildings collapsed, West Java governor Ridwan Kamil said.

More than 13,000 people whose homes were badly damaged were taken to evacuation centers, Kamil said, though thousands spent the night in the open for fear of aftershocks.

Trucks with food, tents, blankets and other supplies from the capital Jakarta arrived in temporary shelters on Tuesday morning.

Hundreds waited for treatment outside Cianjur Regional Hospital.

“I was working in my office building. The building was not damaged, but due to the earthquake shaking very strongly, many things fell. My leg was hit by heavy stuff,” says Dwi Sarmadi, who works for an Islamic education foundation in a neighboring district.

He waited by a tent outside the hospital after some overwhelmed clinics couldn’t see him. Many people arrived in worse condition. “I really hope they can treat me soon,” he said.

Hasan, a construction worker who goes by one name, has also been taken to hospital.

“I passed out. It was very strong,” Hasan recalled. “I saw my friends running to escape from the building. But it was too late to get out and I got hit by the wall.”

President Joko Widodo visited Cianjur on Tuesday and pledged to rebuild infrastructure, including the main bridge connecting Cianjur to other cities, and to provide government aid of up to 50 million rupiah ($3,180) to any resident whose home was damaged.

“On behalf of myself and the government, I would like to express my deepest condolences to the victims and their families of this earthquake in Cianjur,” he said after visiting survivors in shelters on a football field.

The country of more than 270 million people is often hit by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis due to its location on the arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific basin known as the ‘Ring of Fire’.

In February, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake killed at least 25 people and injured more than 460 in West Sumatra province. In January 2021, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake killed more than 100 people and injured nearly 6,500 in West Sulawesi province.

A powerful earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries, most of them in Indonesia.

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Tarigan reported from Jakarta. Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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