Reporting from Padang, Indonesia, and New Delhi, India — Indonesian authorities said today at least three villages at some distance from the city of Padang, the port city hardest hit by Wednesday’s massive earthquake, were wiped out by landslides, suggesting the disaster will claim significantly more lives than the 715 to date.
At least 640 people died in Paranan Bananak, Pulau Air and Lubuk Lawe, a cluster of villages some 35 miles from Padang, said Jufnedi, a local police commissioner who only uses one name.
“The mud came off the hills and now there are almost no survivors,” said Zul Waddi, a local secretary in Padang Pariaman, the district that encompasses the villages. “All I feel is sadness and pity.”
Waddi said it’s likely that many of the villagers were celebrating after fasting during Ramadan.
One resident who escaped the mayhem and asked not to be identified said there was now a stream of mud running from the collapsed hillside into the river below, obliterating what had once been three vibrant communities.
Trees were upended, with bits of foliage sticking out of the mud along with partly submerged roofs and wooden debris, he said. A local mosque was crushed, toppling the minaret.
Survivors, their families and search crews, some clawing by hand through 30 feet of mud, struggled to find loved ones and belongings as bodies were laid out in the nearby village of Lubuk Lowe, he added.
During the first few days after the disaster, which hit at 5:15 p.m. local time Wednesday, most of the information the world received came from Padang, the city closest to the epicenter with a population of 900,000.
With emergency workers fanning out to reach more remote communities today, however, and as roads and dirt paths were slowly cleared and minimal communications patched together, a fuller picture of the damage started coming into focus.
The U.N. estimates as many as 4,000 people may be buried under the rubble. But more than three days after the disaster hit, the chances of pulling most of them out alive are slim, experts said.
“The most critical need is to save lives of the people trapped under rubble. This is Day 3. Every minute is critical,” said Winston Chung, a member the U.N. Disaster Assistance Coordination team.
At the Ambacong Hotel in downtown Padang, bulldozers and backhoes continued their search for hundreds of people believed to be beneath the destroyed three-story building.
Betty Indah, a 42-year-old housewife, waited expectantly as she had every day since the chaos hit. Her husband was at the hotel speaking at a business workshop Wednesday. “I just want to know if he’s alive,” she said.
A Swiss evacuation team spent hours with a high-tech location device looking for six students trapped in a staircase at the Prayang language school. After tearing furiously through the wreckage, emergency workers removed the students’ remains in bright yellow body bags.
Disaster teams from the United States arrived in Padang today, joining the massive international aid and rescue operation.
The home of the local governor has been turned into a sprawling command center as humanitarian groups from around the world attempt to coordinate their efforts.
According to the U.N.’s Chung, as more food and medical assistance arrive in Padang, teams of workers will focus on distributing more aid to outlying areas where the earthquakes and resulting landslides in rural areas have devastated as much as 80% of the structures.
Tiziano Rosetto, head of University College London’s Earthquake and People Interaction Center, said preliminary evidence suggests most of the concrete buildings in the area were not designed with much attention to seismic principles despite the frequency of earthquakes in the region.
Although other nondesign factors may have contributed, she said, including corruption, lax building code enforcement and a weak inspection regime, it’s evident that most supporting beams buckled rather than swayed.
In effect, this meant they didn’t absorb much of the excess energy before collapsing outright, giving people little time to flee before being buried alive.
Another factor, she added, was likely poor construction techniques and poor-quality materials. “Unfortunately this problem is quite common worldwide, not just in Indonesia or developing countries,” she added.
A U.S. diplomatic team, meanwhile, continued its search today for Americans tourists and U.S. citizens living in the area.
“We’ve checked all the locations that they might be and all the hospitals and morgues,” said Stanley Harsha, general consul of the American Consulate in Medan. So far, he added “we have found no dead or injured Americans.”
A U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Team started arriving Friday to lend support in the rural areas following President Obama’s pledge to provide Indonesia with $3 million in assistance.
“In the initial stage everyone is doing their own thing. It can be confusing [with] different countries bringing their own equipment and techniques,” said Al Dwyer, regional advisor for the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. “Coordination at this scale is an art rather than a science.”
had been trapped in a building since Wednesday’s earthquake.