JAKARTA, Indonesia — Retno Budiharto is on intimate terms with the dead.
Since June, the veteran of Indonesia’s search-and-rescue service has encountered bodies in buildings destroyed by earthquakes and among the sodden wreckage after a tsunami.
And when his boat slipped through a muddy brown oil slick strewn with floating aircraft debris in late October, he knew he would again be looking for bodies rather than survivors.
The past months in Indonesia — virtually a nonstop string of disasters — have been a huge test for Retno and others in Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency. It has also put a spotlight on the country’s ambitions of responding to its many crises without ceding control to foreign nations and international organizations.
At times, Indonesia’s rescue agency has struggled to keep pace with such catastrophes across a nation in nature’s crosshairs. Its more than 15,000 islands shadow part of the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire” — an area of intense tectonic activity prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Yet the stress, difficult logistics and relentless demands also have made Indonesia’s rescuers into something of folk heroes in their trademark orange jumpsuits.
The agency has won the admiration of Indonesians as a symbol of national pride and self-
reliance. It has even elevated the spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority, another response agency, into a celebrity as he continues to provide updates to the media despite ongoing treatment for Stage 4 lung cancer.
A cartoon once depicted the spokesman, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, receiving chemotherapy while a volcano erupted and the ground cracked near his feet.
Retno is 46 years old and has been dispatched to disasters for more than half his life with the National Search and Rescue Agency, known locally by the acronym Basarnas.
The group formed in 1972. Its first major response operation came two years later when a Pan Am flight en route to Los Angeles crashed in mountains near Bali, killing all 107 people aboard. Retno signed up to join Basarnas in 1992 and began work the next year.
One of his first memorable assignments, he said, came in 2000, when he was dispatched to the island of Sumatra to search for earthquake survivors, flying in with high-ranking ministers on a military transport plane.
The years have taught him how to read the severity of plane crashes, the force of earthquakes and ultimately the chances of survival for those caught in them.
“The dead can’t be alive, but the alive can be dead,” he said of the emphasis that rescuers put on finding survivors quickly. “There’s pride to be found in finding people who are still alive.”
But after the Oct. 29 crash of Lion Air Flight 610 — which nose-dived into the Java Sea — Retno saw little hope for finding a “VVIP,” his term for someone found alive. All 189 people aboard the flight died.
Investigators are closing in on the Boeing 737 Max 8’s faulty sensors, which doomed the plane minutes after takeoff. Pilots wrestled to keep the plane up as incorrect readings on a key vane pushed the plane’s nose down over and over again, causing the aircraft’s altitude to vary dramatically during its 13 minutes in the air.
At the crash site, Retno pulled only body parts from the water — a leg, then an arm.
“It was tragic,” he said.
Basarnas’s slogan is “May the universe be saved,” but the past months have not been kind to Indonesia.
In June, a ferry crowded with vacationers got caught in bad weather on Lake Toba in North Sumatra province, killing nearly 200 people. The next month, the first of several earthquakes struck the island of Lombok, leaving more than 500 people dead.
The Indonesian government made significant investment in its disaster response and relief programs following the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, no longer wanting to be reliant on foreign assistance.
But President Joko Widodo was criticized for not declaring the Lombok earthquakes a natural disaster, which would have allowed for more foreign help. Coordination between government agencies was at times lacking. Rescuers were stretched thin as aftershocks continued for weeks, complicating their efforts.
Then on Sept. 28, a quake hit near the city of Palu on the island of Sulawesi. Solid ground turned to mud, sweeping away entire inland villages. It also triggered a tsunami that plowed through the city, reducing its bayfront promenade and homes to tangled piles of rubble. At least 2,250 people were killed in the twin disasters.
Almost exactly a month later, just as some of the very first rebuilding efforts began in Palu, the Lion Air flight crashed.
Jonatan Lassa, who researches disaster governance and emergency management at Charles Darwin University in Australia, said: “There is a kind of fatigue” in Indonesia.
Since 2015, rescue resources have been used “very heavily,” Lassa said, adding that they “have not quite recovered.”
Retno, known to his friends and colleagues as Budi, helped organize logistics for the response to Lombok. He then spent nine days in Palu. When Washington Post reporters met him there, he had rescued two people from collapsed hotels. One woman needed to have her foot amputated so rescuers could pull her from the rubble.
He was in his office in Jakarta early Oct. 29, when a call came in alerting rescuers to an aircraft that had lost contact with controllers shortly after it took off. After helping organize equipment needed for the response, he made his way to the crash area.
Retno’s time with Basarnas included a deployment to the city of Banda Aceh shortly after the massive tsunami struck in late 2004. For two weeks, he said, he pulled nothing but bodies from the debris.
He ditched the two jumpsuits he wore constantly during the work.
“When I went back home, I left them behind,” he said. “They were soaked in mud, blood . . . the smell of corpses.”
He recounted his time on the job on a recent hazy day at Jakarta’s main shipping port, where a command center for the Lion Air search operations was slowly being dismantled.
Safety measures and equipment have improved since he started. Rescuers are now given shots for possible ailments such as tetanus, he said.
There is no way, however, to stop memory. His mind occasionally wanders to people in disaster zones and the question of why some survive while others do not.
“When I’m daydreaming, though, sometimes I wonder, how did that happen to them?” he said.
The Lion Air crash brought Retno close to the area that inspired him to join Basarnas.
When he was 15, his older brother was traveling with friends on a small boat off Jakarta when the engine failed and the vessel began to take on water. His brother, Bambang Suprayogi, two weeks shy of his wedding day, worked feverishly to bail out the boat. He gave his life jacket to the captain’s son when it became apparent the boat was going down, a survivor told Retno.
Exhausted, his brother drowned, and the rest of the passengers were rescued, Retno said. His body was never recovered.
“That’s my motivation: to find victims, dead or alive,” he said.