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Hope Fades and Arrives in Indonesia

Quake Death Toll Mounts as Help Reaches Island

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page A12

GUNUNGSITOLI, Indonesia, March 31 -- "Hello, Debby, if you can hear me, please respond!"

Dressed in a blue jumpsuit, the Singaporean rescue worker stood atop the wreckage of an earthquake-flattened house here Thursday and broadcast that plea five yards down, using an electronic loudspeaker inserted into the rubble where the father of 19-year-old Debby Octavia had heard her voice.


Jansen Silalahia tells a French firefighter which leg was pinned in the rubble after he was rescued on Nias island. (Suzanne Plunkett -- AP)

"Hello, Debby!" The rescue worker said the words over and over, each time pausing for a response over the headset he wore. But there was none.

Debby's father, Heriyanto Wijaya, 50, sat a few yards away, silent. He had survived 17 hours in the wreckage after the house caved in. His wife and another daughter had died, and a son was presumed dead, but he still had hope for Debby.

For others on Indonesia's Nias island, 45 miles from the epicenter of Monday's mammoth undersea earthquake, hope did come Thursday as rescue workers and supplies arrived by ship and by aircraft.

Wails of grief echoing across the devastated city competed with the noise of helicopters passing overhead, bringing supplies and flying the badly injured to hospitals on nearby Sumatra island. Catholic Relief Services said it had put a heavy-lift chopper to use in that effort.

Emergency workers, like the five-member team from Singapore looking for Debby, kept up round-the-clock searches of ruined homes and commercial buildings as Gunungsitoli, the main city on Nias Island, remained without electricity or running water. Indonesian troops in fatigues spread out across a city that displayed horrific damage in many quarters -- a mosque with its silver dome tipped at a precarious angle, a ravaged church and Buddhist temple.

Aid officials said the confirmed death toll on the largely Christian island had reached 1,000 and would continue to rise.

Here and there, miracles were reported: French firefighters from the agency Firefighters Without Borders rescued 25-year-old television repairman Jansen Silalalahi from the wreckage of his house 36 hours after it collapsed on him, according to the Associated Press. He was pinned between a motorbike and a cupboard, and the rescue workers used an automobile jack to free him.

Aid groups already working in the vicinity since the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami began diverting disaster response specialists and supplies from warehouses on Sumatra to Nias and other nearby stricken islands. Nonetheless, the initial response was slowed by a shortage of boats and helicopters.

Catholic Relief Services was working to move about 450 tons of food by ship to Nias, a remote island known to foreigners mainly for beaches with ideal surfing waves moving in from the Indian Ocean.

The U.S. Navy hospital ship Mercy and Navy supply ship Niagara Falls, which carries three helicopters, were due off Nias in about six days.

United Nations assessment teams reported that at least 2,000 people were injured in the earthquake, said U.N. spokeswoman Imogen Wall. "The medical need is pretty intense."

The scenes of suffering and occasional celebration recalled the days after the December earthquake and ensuing tsunami that swept over coastal communities in 11 countries around the Indian Ocean, killing an estimated 280,000 people. This time there were no massive waves, but towns and villages close to the epicenter of the 8.7 magnitude undersea quake suffered mightily from the shaking ground.


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