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Indonesia earthquake: One week later

Hope is abandoned, as rescue workers officially end the search for survivors.

An official photograph of Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla among the rubble of an earthquake-destroyed classroom on the outskirts of Padang, in Indonesia's West Sumatra province, Oct. 7, 2009. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

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And so a frenetic rescue effort has been replaced by wrecking crews, who, using backhoes and other heavy machines, began tearing apart hundreds of collapsed buildings, filling parades of dump trucks while sifting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.