PADANG, Indonesia — The death toll from Indonesia’s massive earthquake will likely double as officials today reached rural communities wiped out by landslides that buried more than 600 people under mountains of mud, most of them guests at a wedding celebration.
Virtually nothing remained of four villages that had dotted the hillside of the Padang Pariman district in Indonesia’s West Sumatra just three days ago, said officials and an Associated Press photographer who flew over the devastated area.
Hundreds of doctors, nurses, search and rescue experts and cleanup crews arrived at the regional airport from around the globe with tons of food, tents, medicine, clean water, generators and a field hospital.
But with no electricity, fuel shortages and telecommunication outages, the massive operation was chaotic.
Roughly 400 people were at a communal wedding in Pulau Aiya village when Wednesday’s 7.6 magnitude quake unleashed a torrent of mud, rock and felled palm trees, said Rustam Pakaya, the head of Indonesia’s Health Ministry crisis center.
“They were sucked 30 meters (100 feet) deep into the earth,” he said. “Even the mosque’s minaret, taller than 20 meters (65 feet), disappeared.”
Twenty-six bodies were pulled from the rubble-strewn brown earth in nearby Lubuk Lawe and Jumena, but 618 bodies remained far beyond the reach of residents who worked without outside help because roads had been severed, he said.
The number of fatalities in the disaster will jump to more than 1,300 if all those people are confirmed dead. The government’s death toll on Saturday held steady at 715, most reported in the region’s badly hit capital of 900,000, Padang, where aid efforts are concentrated.
As many as 3,000 people had been declared missing before news about the obliterated villages emerged, while 2,400 were hospitalized and tens of thousands of people are believed to have been displaced.
More than 1.1 million residents live in the 10 quake-hit districts, the United Nations estimated in a situation assessment, while the government said more than 30,000 homes, schools, mosques, hospitals and government offices had been flattened or severely damaged — 17 percent of all local infrastructure.
An AP photographer who flew over Padang Pariaman district in a helicopter saw several landslides in the area.
At Limo Koto Timur village, a giant section of a hillside was swept away and the remains of destroyed houses protruded from the mud. The ruins of other tin-roofed homes hung precariously over the edge of a huge crevice that was torn through rice fields and forest. Roads were gone and palm trees had been uprooted and swept downhill, leaving patches of brown earth where villages once stood.
El-Mostafa Benlamlih, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Indonesia, told the AP that 200 houses were swept away in Pulau Aiya. Aid efforts are “still concentrated in Padang area,” with outlying areas still short of aid, Benlamlih said, adding that aid agencies would focus on restoring water, electricity, sanitation and preventing disease.
Deliveries came on C-130 cargo planes from the United States, Russia and Australia. Japanese, Swiss, South Korean and Malaysian search-and-rescue teams scoured the debris. Tens of millions of dollars in donations came from more than a dozen countries to supplement $400 million the Indonesian government said it would spend over the next two months.
On Friday, survivors buried under a collapsed hotel in Padang sent a cell-phone text message to a relative saying he and some others were alive. But, disappointed rescue workers were unable to locate anyone at the Ambacang hotel where as many as 200 people were staying.
After several hours of digging through blocks of concrete, steel and bricks, rescue workers gave up. Padang Police Chief Col. Boy Rafli Amar told reporters, “So far rescuers have found nothing.”
Hidehiro Murase, head of a Japanese search dog team, said its search had been fruitless.
“We did an extensive search this morning, but there were no signs of life. Our dogs are trained to smell for living people, not the dead, and they didn’t sense anything,” he told the AP.
The U.N. said there are sufficient fuel stocks in the area for four days, but with the road to a major depot cut off by landslides gasoline prices had jumped six-fold.
Areas with “huge levels of damage to infrastructure were in need of basic food and tents for temporary shelter,” it said.
Wednesday’s quake originated on the same fault line that spawned the 2004 Asian tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.
Associated Press photographer Dita Alangkara in Padang and writers Ali Kotarumalos, Anthony Deutsch, Niniek Karmini and Vijay Joshi in Jakarta contributed to this report.