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Indonesians dig for bodies and survivors buried in landslides from quake

Rescuers search on Wednesday for victims of an earthquake-triggered landslide in Cianjur, Indonesia. (Tatan Syuflana/AP)

CUGENANG, Indonesia — Across a patch of red earth littered with broken tree branches, two car wheels jut from the mud. The vehicle was buried when the quake hit — along with all its passengers. Nearby, an excavator digs into a pile of earth, searching for signs of life. It uncovers bodies, sometimes limbs. No survivors.

The death toll from the 5.6-magnitude earthquake that hit this part of West Java on Monday is still climbing as rescuers venture out from the urban town center of Cianjur toward more rural, mountainous communities that were blanketed by catastrophic mudslides triggered by the quake.

The landslides, which have destroyed roads and torn down power lines, have complicated efforts to find and rescue survivors as monsoon rains bear down on the region.

Indonesia quake toll soars above 250 amid frantic search for survivors

In Cugenang district, about half an hour from Cianjur, at least one village was swallowed entirely by falling rocks, mud and debris, officials said. Houses and shops were flattened before the people in them knew what was happening.

“The mud rushed down the mountain, ripping houses from their foundations,” said Ade Beton, 60, a rescue worker. “They never stood a chance.”

Beton said his volunteer group, Rapi Taskforce, had found about a dozen bodies so far in the area, adding that, fortunately, “all the ones I have found have been intact.” The scenic spot in the Palalangon mountains used to be a place where locals came to sit and eat while taking in the valley views.

Many of those families perished in the landslide, Beton said, and the survivors have returned to plead with authorities and rescuers to unearth their remains.

“Just today a family told us that their mother had still been in her shop when the earthquake hit, so we are trying to find her now,” he said, gesturing to a digger moving piles of earth mixed with household objects like cushions and children’s toys.

As of Wednesday evening, at least 271 people had been found dead, with 40 others still missing, officials said. It’s customary in Muslim communities in Indonesia to bury the dead quickly, so there may be bodies that were buried by families before authorities were aware, said Lt. Gen. Suharyanto, who is head of the National Agency for Disaster Management and goes by just one name. With local hospitals overflowing, patients were being redirected to facilities in the nearby cities of Bandung and Jakarta.

While the quake was technically moderate for Indonesia, it exacted a heavy toll because it occurred fairly close to the surface of the Earth — six miles — and hit a population center.

Why the 5.6-magnitude earthquake in Indonesia was so deadly

During a visit to Cianjur on Tuesday, Indonesian President Joko Widodo promised aid to the affected families, adding that he had instructed local officials to prioritize search and rescue operations. But finding survivors is likely to be more challenging in the mountains than it has been in Cianjur, aid workers said.

“Because of the terrain, these are areas not easily reached by the relief teams,” said Ade Soekadis, executive director for Mercy Corps in Indonesia. Roads leading up to districts like Cugenang are narrow and still blocked in some parts by fallen debris, making it difficult to transport excavators and other heavy machinery.

The force of the landslides has also left some bodies difficult to identify. Some had been carried far away from their villages by the gush of mud and earth. Asep, a rescue worker in Cugenang, said on Wednesday that he had found an arm in the mud but hadn’t uncovered the rest of the body.

“I don’t have the heart to send it to the hospital just yet,” said Asep, who like many Indonesians goes only by one name. “Just an arm on its own.”

Rain, brought on by Indonesia’s monsoon season, has also added to the logistical challenges, and raised concerns of another wave of mudslides. Aftershocks from the quake have persisted, with tremors felt across the Cianjur region. At the site where Asep was working, an aftershock on Wednesday triggered another small mudslide.

“We all just shouted, ‘God is great,’ and hoped for the best,” he said.

The rain has also added to the pressing need for shelter, aid workers said. More than 58,000 people have been displaced, with many taking refuge in temporary camps in Cianjur or in surrounding rice fields. With heavy rain forecast in the coming weeks, this cannot be a long-term solution, said Yenni Suryani, country representative for Catholic Relief Services.

“We can’t just let people live under tents in the field,” Suryani said. “Not during the monsoon.”

Tan reported from Singapore.