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Hopes of finding earthquake survivors fade

Hopes of finding survivors trapped beneath hundreds of collapsed buildings here began to fade Saturday, three days after a large earthquake struck the region.

“The possibility of finding life this long after an earthquake is very, very small,” said Rustam Pakaya. “We can only hope.”

Official government figures put the death toll from the 7.6-magnitude earthquake, which struck Wednesday evening, at about 500. Yusuf Kalla, the vice president, said at a press conference Saturday, however, that they were only counting confirmed deaths and that “thousands” more are still missing or trapped beneath buildings.

International aid organizations set up camp outside the governor of West Sumatra’s mansion, where the United Nations has established its base of operations.

The frenetic activity in and around the governor’s house stood in stark contrast to other areas of the city where residents expressed their frustration over the lack of any emergency response.

Exhausted survivors spent Saturday digging through rubble inside the city’s Chinese quarter, looking for bodies and personal possessions. Local churches and cultural centers had set up makeshift posts to distribute food and water they had pulled out of local stores.

Professional aid workers were nowhere to be seen.

“Not a single person from the government, military or international community has come to this neighborhood,” said Hongki, 57, a local community leader, adding that residents were in desperate need of water.

Neighborhoods like the Chinese quarter have so far been largely forsaken while teams of emergency personnel scour the wreckage of large commercial buildings, schools and hotels.

Signs of life briefly reinvigorated rescue workers late Friday night at the Hotel Ambacang, where scores of guests are thought to be trapped. An apparent survivor sent a text message to his family saying he and seven others were alive on the sixth floor of the hotel. Emergency crews scrambled to shut down their machinery, hushed the large crowd that had gathered, and listened quietly for sounds of life.

But none came.

“With every hour it gets less and less likely that we’ll find someone alive,” said Nino Rozano, a veteran Indonesian rescue worker. The wafting stench of decomposing bodies seemed to confirm his doubts.

Nino said the coordination of rescue crews during the first few days had been a disaster in itself. He said numerous teams – from Switzerland, Japan, Indonesia and the United States – were working at the site with no clear person or group in charge.

“There was absolutely no coordination,” he said. “It’s been a total mess.”

In the village of Pariaman, an hour north of Padang, the rescue effort appeared to be even more grim. A landslide buried three whole villages after the quake, yet the Indonesian military only arrived Saturday.

They brought with them two backhoes to help comb the fallen earth, but one of them broke down.