PADANG, Indonesia — One week after a powerful earthquake leveled buildings across the city of Padang and obliterated whole villages throughout western Sumatra, rescue workers gave up hope of finding anyone else alive, packed their gear and headed home.
More than 600 international emergency crew members worked for four to six days, day and night, tunneling through twisted wreckages, looking for signs of life.
But none came.
“Unfortunately, we were unable to find any survivors. In fact, none of the international teams pulled anyone out alive,” said Hiroaki Sano, the leader of a 64-member team from Japanese Disaster Rescue, one of the first teams to arrive.
Indonesian search and rescue teams faired better, but only slightly. Ade Edward, head of West Sumatra’s center for disaster management, estimated they saved about 300 people, mostly during the first 24 hours after the quake.
“It is impossible for anyone to survive six days after,” he said. “So we’ve called off the rescue operation. We are now just recovering bodies.”
Government officials said that so far they had found more than 600 people killed by the 7.6-magnitude earthquake, which struck Sept. 30, but said they expected to find a thousand or more in the coming week.
And so a frenetic rescue effort has been replaced by wrecking crews, who, using backhoes and other heavy machines, began tearing apart hundreds of collapsed buildings, filling parades of dump trucks while sifting through the debris for bodies.
Officials said many of the victims might never be found.
After a week, the stench of decomposing bodies wafted throughout the city. Many residents wore surgical masks to cover the pungent smell and protect themselves from clouds of dust.
In some ways, however, residents began returning to life as usual. Hundreds of children put on their class uniforms and went back to school this week, attending temporary school houses set up by Unicef. Banks reopened across the city and small businesses, the ones still standing, reopened their store fronts. Traditional markets bustled. Residents bought and sold fruit, vegetables and fish in their usual frenzied way. One group of men hovered over a cockfight at the end of small alley in Padang’s Chinatown, an area particularly devastated by the quake. Around the corner a young boy and his father giggled outside the ruins of their house.
October is a popular month for weddings in this part of the country and some residents went on with those as well. Dozens of ceremonies went forward, complete with flowers, colorful embroidery, music and guests. They offered a moment of happiness to an otherwise stunned populace.
Of course, the destruction and death was never far from anyone’s mind. Emergency trucks carrying supplies raced back and forth across the city and helicopters buzzed overhead.
Aid organizations airlifted food and water to remote villages, which were now buried beneath at least 30 feet of mud after the earthquake triggered a series of landslides. In one of those villages, at least 40 people were killed as they celebrated a marriage.
The United States continued its largest aid effort to a Muslim-majority country since the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that devasted the Indonesian province of Aceh. The United States opened a field hospital in the back parking lot of Padang’s main hospital, most of which lies in ruins, this week. And American Hercules transport planes shuttled aid to the outlying villages.
As rescue turned to recovery and reconstruction, shock slowly turned to anger as reports emerged that government corruption and shoddy building practices were possibly a major reason the damage was so widespread.
Structural engineers at Miyamoto International said they had visited Padang after 2007’s earthquake, which killed 72 people, and found that many of the schools, hospitals, commercial and industrial buildings and houses were constructed with unreinforced masonry and brittle concrete.
However, the Indonesian government did not move to renovate the buildings.
“The tradegy that occurred in Padang last week did not have to happen,” the company said in a press release.
The company added that construction details to strengthen existing brittle buildings are cost-effective and can be implemented with materials that are locally available.
One obvious example would be the Hotel Ambacang, where at least 200 people are believed to have been crushed under the collapsed structure during last week’s quake. The hotel was originally a Dutch trading center, established at the height of the spice trade. It was later turned into a hotel and even later a six-story addition was added.
After the earthquake, the Dutch portion of the hotel stood firm, while the addition buckled, trapping scores of business leaders who were attending a conference.
Alex Pollack, an American living in Indonesia, spent five days crawling through the ruins late into the night using a headlamp. He helped an Indonesian team extract one survivor, but said he didn’t find anyone else alive — only bodies, one of which was the brother of the survivor.
“One of the things people need to consider is that in the first few days there was no electricity, no cellphone coverage, no radios and no access to news. People with chargeable flashlights couldn’t recharge them,” he said. Pollack — who also searched for survivors after the tsunami in Aceh, the 2006 earthquake in Yogyakarta and the 2005 earthquake on the island of Nias, where he managed to find someone alive after five days — said when he’s deep within the ruins of buildings, searching out dark crevices, he thinks only of the living.
“The first thing is you have to have an awareness of everything around you. You are on high alert at all times,” he said. “If you are going to put your life at risk, you need to do your best to make sure there is no one alive inside. You have to have faith that if you are out there to save others, God will be watching out for you at the same time.”