by Dessy Sagita with Marchio Gorbiano in Jakarta
CIANJUR, INDONESIA — Indonesian authorities deployed heavy machinery, helicopters and thousands of personnel Thursday in a desperate effort to locate dozens trapped in rubble by an earthquake that killed 271 people, as hopes faded to find survivors.
Some have been pulled alive from the hulk of twisted metal and concrete in dramatic rescues in the town of Cianjur in West Java, including a six-year-old boy who spent two days under the wreckage without food or water.
Officials said around 40 people are still missing and believed trapped, including a seven-year-old girl, as rescue efforts were delayed by hammering rains and aftershocks.
But the rescue of the young boy Azka alive, captured on video, gave relatives and rescuers a dash of optimism.
“Once we realised Azka was alive everybody broke into tears, including me,” 28-year-old local volunteer Jeksen Kolibu told AFP on Thursday.
“It was very moving, it felt like a miracle.”
In the worst-hit district of Cugenang, scores of rescue workers drilled on Thursday through big slabs of concrete and removed roof tiles at a destroyed house where they believed a young girl was buried as her distraught mother watched on.
Other rescuers used digging tools, hammers and their bare hands to clear the debris in hope of finding seven-year-old Cika.
Her parents gave possible locations to rescuers for the delicate rescue mission.
“She was playing outside, I was cooking in the kitchen, suddenly the earthquake happened, so fast, only two seconds, my house collapsed,” her mother Imas Masfahitah, 34, told AFP at the scene.
“My instinct tells me she is here because she liked playing here,” she added, referring to the house of the girl’s grandmother where the search is focused.
“Whatever happens I will try to accept it.”
Sastra Winata, a firefighter involved in the rescue, said workers feared she was “running and was buried.”
By Thursday afternoon, workers had prepared a stretcher to be ready for her discovery dead or alive.
‘Pray For Us’
The death toll from the Monday earthquake is expected to rise further with 2,000 people wounded, some of them critically, and at least two villages still cut off.
Thousands of emergency workers were using excavators to break through blocked roads to access the villages and deploying helicopters to drop vital aid to people still trapped there.
The rescue operation is expected to continue beyond the 72-hour window viewed as the best period to find victims alive.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Cianjur again on Thursday, and said 39 people were believed missing in the district of Cugenang alone.
“This afternoon, we will concentrate on this spot,” he told reporters, adding only 24 patients remained at the town’s Sayang hospital, down from 741.
Residents of the district said they had never experienced anything like it before.
“I don’t know why the impact in Cugenang is especially bad. It’s probably fate, God has decided,” Adek, a 52-year-old who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP.
More than 22,000 houses were damaged and more than 60,000 people were forced to evacuate to shelters, leaving many homeless in the town without adequate supplies.
Some have put up signs asking for help, while others held cardboard boxes to beg for donations after losing everything.
Widodo said there were significant challenges getting aid to those most in need.
The spots are too many and the terrain is up and down, which is not easy,” he said.
Another fear is a second disaster. Indonesia is vulnerable to landslides and flash floods in the rainy season, which has already begun and peaks in December in West Java.
The country’s meteorology agency said rivers could be blocked by landslides or rubble and spark flash floods in Cianjur.
Indonesia experiences frequent seismic and volcanic activity due to its position on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where tectonic plates collide.
Monday’s tremor was the deadliest in the archipelago nation since a 2018 quake and resulting tsunami killed more than 4,000 people on the island of Sulawesi.
But for a few women there was joy on the sidelines of the disaster.
At least three babies were born in the same evacuation tent a day after the disaster, according to West Java governor Ridwan Kamil.
He posted a video Wednesday of his visit to the tent where he named one of the children Gempita — which means “shaking”, after the earthquake.
As he uttered her new name, smiling friends and relatives of mother Dewi shouted in jubilation: “Thank God!”