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Saving Lives, Bridging Cultures

Relief Workers from Many Nations Converge on Indonesia

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page A16

GUNUNGSITOLI, Indonesia, March 31 -- Miguel Ronzero, a Spanish firefighter, held the crow bar steady. Olaf Lingjerde, a Norwegian firefighter, raised a sledgehammer in the air and brought it down -- clank -- on the crowbar.

Don Hargis, an American relief worker, radioed to his crew for shovels to scoop away the debris.

On the Indonesian island of Nias, family members grieve at the funeral of a relative killed by a massive earthquake. (Beawiharta -- Reuters)

"Olaf! Vamos! [Let's go!]" Manuel Munoz, a Spanish doctor, urged the strapping firefighter as he swung the sledgehammer, sweat dripping off his nose and blending with a light rain.

The impromptu international team, working in the rubble of a house, was searching for survivors of Monday's powerful undersea earthquake that caused its greatest damage here on the Indonesian island of Nias.

The toll remained uncertain Thursday. The Indonesian government lowered its official estimate from 1,000 to 400-500, the Associated Press reported, while the United Nations raised its figure to 624.

Regardless of size, natural disasters have the power to draw people together across the language and culture divide. As with the Dec. 26 undersea quake and resulting tsunami that devastated coastlines on much of the Indian Ocean basin, Monday's quake prompted rescue teams from all over the world to converge on the quake zones.

So far, they have arrived from Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, France and Switzerland, as well as the United States, Norway and Spain. On Friday, 13 Hungarians with dogs and equipment will join them.

Coordination is not always easy and sometimes happens by chance. Hargis, who volunteers with the International Board of Indonesia, a Christian aid group, leads a team of nine Americans who were on their way to set up a medical clinic in Aceh, the province on Sumatra island most affected by the tsunami, when Monday's earthquake struck. Four of them changed course and headed to Nias.

Arriving by ferry Thursday morning, they met the Norwegians at the U.N. disaster relief headquarters here. The Norwegians, who with the Spaniards form part of the U.N. search-and-rescue effort, lacked equipment. The Americans had generators, wire cutters and saw blades, which they had loaded into a pickup truck and driven onto a ferry to cross from Sumatra to Nias.

The Norwegians, Spaniards and Americans teamed up for the day.

They came to the ruined house in central Gunungsitoli because at about 3:30 p.m. Thursday, an Indonesian army rescue worker thought he heard the voice of a boy calling for his mother from the rubble. An 11-year-old boy named Johan Willis was missing, they learned.

After about an hour, they had punched two holes in the concrete roof of a collapsed three-story house that the earthquake had moved about 50 feet. Then Mariano Palo of the Spanish contingent held his hand up to ask for silence.

Lingjerde got down on the concrete and stuck his head, neck and shoulders into one of the holes.

"Is there somebody moving around down there?" he called in English. He couldn't be sure that what he was hearing was the boy's voice, so the team sent Ronzero through another passage into the narrow crawl space between the collapsed roof and the floor below it.

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