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Indonesian quake toll at 1,100; thousands missing

ACROSS this coastal provincial capital, hardest hit by the latest earthquake to devastate Indonesia, mourners, survivors and rescue workers alike clawed through heaps of concrete in searches for thousands still missing.

Some, like Malina, had already realized the worst. She was just looking for the shoes missing from her dead daughter's body, found in the rubble of a four-story school that was flattened within seconds. Like many Indonesians, she goes by one name.

As the death toll climbed yesterday - to 1,100 by one UN estimate - others looked for survivors, with thousands of people missing and feared trapped in the wreckage of shattered buildings.

When search efforts were suspended for the night, an eerie quiet fell over the city of 900,000.

"Let's not underestimate. Let's be prepared for the worst," President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in the capital, Jakarta.

Wednesday's 7.6-magnitude earthquake started at sea and quickly rippled through Sumatra, the westernmost island in the Indonesian archipelago.

Government figures put the number of dead at 777, with nearly 2,100 people seriously injured. John Holmes, the UN's humanitarian chief, set the death toll at 1,100, and the number was expected to grow.

President Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, pledged to support earthquake recovery efforts there, as well as provide assistance to the South Pacific countries of Samoa and American Samoa, which were hit by a deadly tsunami Tuesday. The United States pledged $3 million in immediate assistance.

Most of the confirmed deaths in Indonesia were reported in Padang, where more than 500 buildings were severely damaged or flattened.

Where a mall once stood was a heap of concrete slabs layered like pancakes with iron rods jutting out. Police and army rescue teams used bulldozers, backhoes and electric drills to clear the wreckage in intermittent rain, or climbed the hills of rubble to dislodge pieces of concrete with bare hands.

The rescue operation was being hampered by a lack of heavy digging equipment, said Priyadi Kardono, a spokesman for the Disaster Management Agency. Japan, Switzerland and Singapore were providing support and backhoes were to arrive at the scene today.

Relatives of the missing gathered outside ruined buildings, hoping to hear good news. But mostly, the rescuers found bodies.

Occasionally, they saved lives.

A Singaporean, John Lee, was pulled alive from the Maryani hotel after surviving under the rubble for 25 hours. Rescue workers, responding to his cries for help, dug for 12 hours to free him. Lee suffered only a broken leg.

One of the hospitals in the town had collapsed completely while the state-run Djamil Hospital was partly damaged - its walls cracked and windows broken. Staff at the hospital treated the injured in tents set up in the open. In another area, yellow body bags were laid out in rows.

Mira Utami, a sophomore a week shy of her 16th birthday, was taking an end-of-term English exam along with dozens of classmates at the Indonesia-America Institute when the ground shook so severely that the tremors were felt in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.

Her father, Zul Elfrizal, rushed to the school, but it was already a heap of concrete when he got there. Still, he pulled at the slabs and managed to save two other children and an adult.

His wife, Malina, said rescuers found their daughter's body much later, but her feet were bare.

"We are in shock," sobbed Malina, wearing her daughter's brown veil and seeking other items to keep her connected to the girl. "We had planned to celebrate Mira's 16th birthday on Oct. 7. Now I don't know what we will do."

Elfrizal was more philosophical. "I regret I couldn't save her," he said, "but I have to accept that as her destiny."

The school building's construction was typical of the region, which is located in one of the poorest countries in the world. Most buildings are not made to withstand earthquakes, and even the tough ones were badly damaged in an earthquake in 2007.

There is virtually no enforcement of building regulations in Indonesia, a nation of 235 million people prone to natural and man-made disasters.

Indonesia sits on a major geological fault zone and experiences dozens of quakes every year. A 6.8 magnitude quake shook Sumatra yesterday but there were no reports of deaths. Both quakes originated on the fault line that spawned the 2004 Asian tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.

Wednesday's quake was the deadliest since May 2006, when more than 3,000 people died in the city of Yogyakarta.

SurfAid, a New Zealand-based medical aid group, said its program director, David Lange, narrowly escaped death when he fled the Ambacang Hotel in Padang just minutes before it collapsed. At least 80 people were missing in the five-story hotel, paramedics said.

"People are trapped and screaming for help but they are below huge slabs which will take heavy equipment to move," Lange was quoted as saying in a statement by SurfAid.

"I saw dozens of the biggest buildings collapsed in town. Most of the damage is concentrated in the commercial center market, which was fully packed," he said.

Finance minister Sri Mulyani said the government has allocated $25 million for a two-month emergency response. She said the earthquake will seriously affect Indonesia's economic growth, because West Sumatra is a main producer of crude palm oil.

"This region has been damaged seriously, including its infrastructure," Mulyani said.


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