The Indonesian navy vessel Jakarta Bay pulled into Gunungsitoli harbor at about 2:30 a.m. Thursday from the port town of Sibolga with supplies and a deck full of passengers, most of them local residents hurrying home from trips to Sumatra. The bay was inky and dark but for the lights of seven relief ships, a handful of stars twinkling above and a few dim, generator-powered lights on shore.
Dawn revealed a waterfront with many of its buildings and jetties in twisted ruin. Beyond the town were rolling green hills that gave no hint of the blow dealt by natural forces a little more than two days earlier.
Jansen Silalahia tells a French firefighter which leg was pinned in the rubble after he was rescued on Nias island.
(Suzanne Plunkett -- AP)
Johanes, a 40-year-old mechanic who like many Indonesians uses one name, gazed at the destruction from the deck of the vessel. He was eager to go ashore in the town where he grew up. He believed eight family members had died. The family's newly built five-floor house collapsed, but two people on the fourth floor survived.
"I got the word by text message on my cell phone" in Jakarta, the capital, where he now lives, Johanes said, covering his eyes with his hands. "I was completely devastated."
Radema Zai, 52, had been on a ferry to Nias to visit her daughter, Winda, when the earthquake struck. She said she was completely unprepared for what she saw when she disembarked at Gunungsitoli. "All the way from the dock up to town, destruction," she said. "I couldn't take it. I fainted."
When she arrived at Winda's house, she saw her daughter's feet poking out from the rubble. "They were so small," she said, beginning to sob. "I knew it was her." Winda was eight months pregnant. She was killed, along with her husband, On, and 2-year-old daughter Nanda when their house collapsed Monday night.
At the flattened house where the Singaporean workers continued their search for Debby, Heriyanto sat outside and recounted his own escape, a checkered scarf stanching wounds on both legs.
The church activist was sleeping in his second-floor bedroom with his wife, Yayan Gandrawati, 46, when he felt the first shock. He rushed to the first floor alone, tried to open the door but was thrown back by an aftershock. The electricity failed.
"I was screaming to the Lord Jesus Christ, 'Help me!' " Heriyanto recalled. "And I survived, trapped between the first and second floors because God touched me." He remained there for 17 hours. The cries of his daughter -- "Help, help, help!" -- came through the wreckage, he said.
Captain C.W. Ong of the Singaporean civil defense team said conditions were far from perfect for finding Debby. "For the machine to work properly, you need perfect silence," Ong said. "I heard a lot of vehicles moving." He said they needed heavy equipment to remove the debris. But his team did spot the bodies of two males in the rubble, presumed to be Heriyanto's son Dedi, age 23, and Roni, a helper.
Thursday morning, Heriyanto grieved on a plastic bench, mopping his brow in heat that was intense even at 9 a.m. People stopped to offer comfort. His friend Gea kept him updated on the search.
"What can I do?" asked Heriyanto. "I'm just sitting here staring at my house. I can't do anything. I'm just hoping for a miracle from God."