Quake toll rises amid eruption fear

The death toll rose steadily on May 27 as bodies were pulled out from the thousands of flattened walls and crumbled roofs after the powerful earthquake in Indonesia; dead babies still clutched in the arms of dead mothers, and old people who had not been quick enough to flee the collapsing houses.

The earthquake hit the heart of Indonesia’s main island of Java just after dawn and as darkness fell day before night around the ancient royal city of Yogyakarta, government officials and volunteers had counted 3,068 bodies. The Red Cross said more than 200,000 were homeless. Many more people remained buried in the aftermath of the third major quake to hit the impoverished Indian Ocean islands in 18 months, while battered and numbed survivors stretched medical services to extreme limits.

The true human toll may never be known because many bodies were buried almost immediately in the villages where they had died rather than being taken to mortuaries. Wahyu and his sister Rini buried their parents behind their house.

Hundreds of thousands of others were preparing to spend the night outside their ruined homes or on the grounds of mosques, churches and schools. “We are too scared to sleep inside. The radio keeps saying there will be more quakes. We still feel the tremors,” said Tjut Nariman, who lives on the city outskirts.

The 6.2 magnitude quake was the worst to hit Indonesia since the December 26, 2004 tsunami and left some 170,000 people dead or missing in Banda Aceh. The worst affected area this time was Bantul, a district eight miles south of Yogyakarta, where more than two-thirds of the fatalities occurred.

Thousands of buildings were flattened and the remainder barely left standing. Many survivors were too afraid to go inside to try to salvage their belongings. “We’re terrified, we’re confused, we don’t know what to think or do...we’ve got no clean water, no food,” said Inti Kalah, clutching her baby daughter Safa.

Her neighbour in the village of Bagulon Kulon, Rani Indrawati, said: “No one has come to help us so we’re going to eat air to survive.” Survival in this village was a matter of chance. Wahyu, 19, and his sister Rini, 16, are now orphans. “When the earthquake struck we were in the back of the house so we ran out of the back door,” said Wahyu. “Our parents were in the front room and so they ran out of the front door. They were both killed when the neighbour’s house fell on top of them while we survived.”

The one blessing for many of the injured and homeless was that the authorities were ready for a disaster — the widely expected eruption of Mount Merapi, a volcano 15 miles north of Yogyakarta had been spewing hot ash, poisonous fumes and lava for weeks. “We just diverted resources to this tragedy instead,” said Dr Susi Satrio at Muhammadiyah Hospital.

The British government said it was ‘standing ready’ to offer immediate assistance, while aid agencies launched efforts to reach stricken communities. Aid workers reported 95 per cent destruction in some areas. Aid workers from Save the Children were among the first to set off from the UK for the stricken area, while the organisation launched a cash appeal. Among the first to pledge cash was the European Commission with 2 million pounds, while the Irish

government donated 500,000 euros. — The Guardian