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Indonesia Quake Death Toll Rises to 1,000

The death toll from a powerful earthquake that devastated a remote Indonesian island rose to an estimated 1,000 Wednesday, according to Sumatra's governor, as rescuers searched frantically through collapsed buildings for survivors.

Bodies were still being dug from ruins of houses and shops early Wednesday and laid out in front of churches and mosques.

Most of the deaths from Monday night's 8.7-magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean were on the Sumatran island of Nias, 75 miles south of the epicenter.

The death toll has risen steadily. Officials put it at 330 Tuesday. But Sumatra Gov. Rizal Nurdin estimated the figure had risen to 1,000 on Wednesday. Government officials have said it could climb as high as 2,000.

In Nias island's main town of Gunung Sitoli, a makeshift triage center was set up on a soccer field next to a palm-fringed Indian Ocean beach. Thirteen patients spent the night under a corrugated iron roof hoping to get on helicopter flight to a hospital on Indonesia's nearest main island of Sumatra.
One man spent the night lying next to his wife, one of the quake victims, planning to bury her later Wednesday.

"What will I tell my children?" said Datot Mendra, 55, a restaurant owner said Tuesdsay. "I can't face it. My faith in Jesus is helping me through this."

Mendra's wife was among some 20 bodies wrapped in white sheets, candles flickering at their heads, laid out on the street outside the Santa Maria church in this predominantly Roman Catholic island.

Dave Jenkins, a New Zealand physician who runs the relief agency SurfAid International in western Sumatra, said he feared for about 10,000 people living on the tiny Banyak Islands, close to the quake's epicenter. By late Tuesday, contact had not been made with the islands.

Nias appeared to have borne the brunt of the tremor, but neighboring islands also were hit and details of casualties there were sketchy.

Budi Atmaji Adiputro, chairman for Indonesia's Coordinating Agency for National Disaster Relief, told the Associated Press that his office was reporting only 17 dead on Simeulue island, despite reports from a local official of 100 victims.

"We have to be careful in counting" the dead, he said, adding that, "We just have to count when we have seen the bodies."

While the scene outside the church Tuesday was almost serene, elsewhere on this island of 600,000 people the atmosphere was anything but. Rescue workers working by candles and flashlight hunted through smoldering rubble for survivors in flattened buildings. Power was out, and electric cables lay tangled in the street.

Little heavy machinery was available, so families frantically searching for loved ones used crow bars and their bare hands to lift heavy chunks of concrete.

Smoke drifted out of piles of rubble and concrete homes where walls had folded in on themselves, almost certainly crushing to death anybody caught inside. A steeple had fallen from a church.

Although most of Indonesia is Muslim, Christianity persists in some areas — a vestige of Dutch colonization. The Nias islanders, particularly the well-organized southern villages, initially put up strong resistance when the Dutch tried to take control. But the Dutch finally conquered the island in 1909, and then Nias slowly started to convert to Christianity.

Monday's quake, which stuck an hour before midnight, toppled every building in the main street of Gunung Sitoli, a church-studded seaside town that is the island's largest.

People swarmed around UN helicopters as they landed to deliver relief supplies, but food and water were in short supply.

Only about 17 were taken off the island through Tuesday, officials said.

The Dec. 26 Indian Ocean epic earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 126,000 in Indonesia's Aceh province on Sumatra and thousands more throughout the region, left 340 dead and 10,000 homeless on Nias.

But Monday's quake appeared to give this island its almost undivided attention.

"It was stronger than the Dec. 26 quake," a survivor who identified himself as Ebenezer said Tuesday. "In one minute, everything was destroyed. No one had a chance to run."

From the air, it appeared that about 30 percent of the buildings in Gunung Sitoli were destroyed, and there was significant damage in the island's second biggest town, Teluk Dalam. Inland areas appeared to be largely unaffected.

The temblor destroyed thousands of houses, shops and government buildings and sent thousands of residents fleeing to the hills in fear of killer waves. That fear of a second devastating tsunami extended to other countries around the Indian Ocean region; warnings were issued and sirens were sounded but authorities later withdrew the alerts.

Relief efforts for Nias faced daunting obstacles, as quake damaged Gunung Sitoli's airstrip and prevented all but small planes from landing.

The International Organization for Migration said it was sending trucks loaded with water, milk and other food items and medical supplies to the Sumatran port town of Sibolga, where they will be ferried to Nias.

There was very little food or water available to survivors — most of Gunung Sitoli's stores were smashed.

Medical care was also a major problem.

"The hospital is desperate. It had a tough night," said Peter Scott-Bowden of the World Food Program. "They are short of supplies."

People whose homes survived the quake feared that one of the many strong aftershocks that rattled Nias island on Tuesday would finally topple the walls.

Instead, as darkness fell on Gunung Sitoli Tuesday, survivors huddled around candles in the streets.

Deli Iname sat patiently next to her 9-year-old daughter. The girl's face was swollen and her legs draped in a bloody sarong.

"She's so young. Why is her life in danger?" Iname asked. "She stood no chance."

(Chinadaily.com via agencies March 31, 2005)

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