Indonesia said on Thursday it expected the death toll from a massive earthquake to climb into the thousands, as rescue workers dug with their bare hands to reach those trapped under rubble.
The first flights laden with food, medicine and body bags began arriving in the devastated region on Sumatra island, even as another powerful quake struck further south, sending residents fleeing their homes in panic.
Wednesday afternoon’s 7.6-magnitude quake caused buildings to crumble and fires to rage in Padang city, home to nearly a million people on the coast of Sumatra, which was left largely without power and communications.
The official death toll stands at 467 dead with 105 injured, but those numbers were expected to soar as the full scale of the tragedy unfolds.
“Our prediction is that thousands have died,” Health Ministry crisis centre head Rustam Pakaya said.
Rescue teams from the Indonesian army and health ministry descended on the city and surrounding towns to hunt for survivors in the twisted wreckage of collapsed buildings and homes. In pouring rain, overwhelmed police and soldiers were clawing through the tangled remains of schools, hotels and at least one major hospital that buckled in the quake.
In front of one collapsed school, 49-year-old mother Andriana waited in tears as police picked through the rubble for her 14-year-old daughter and dozens of other children believed trapped inside.
“I’ve been waiting here since yesterday. I haven’t been home yet and keep praying to God my daughter is alive,” she said, her reddened eyes darting back and forth from the rubble.
Police said that the bodies of eight children had been hauled from the school, a tuition college where they had been taking extra classes, while another nine youngsters had emerged alive.
At the city’s main M. Djamil hospital, a constant stream of ambulances ferried the injured to tents erected outside the partially collapsed building.
Relatives could be seen wandering through rows of yellow body bags searching for loved ones.
Authorities said they were suffering from a desperate shortage of heavy machinery, but the military said planes loaded with tents and blankets had been despatched to help the thousands left homeless by the disaster.
“We have sent eight tonnes of medicine, eight tonnes of baby food, 630 body bags, 200 medical specialists and tents,” said the health ministry’s Pakaya.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, briefing reporters in Tokyo as he returned from the G20 summit in the United States, urged officials to “flood” the city with aid and medical relief.
British-based charity Oxfam said it had earmarked 200,000 pounds (320,000 dollars) for relief efforts, including the distribution of emergency shelters, hygiene kits and clothing.
Charity World Vision, which has dispatched a team to the quake-hit area, said it had set aside 1.0 million dollars to assist victims.
Terrified residents rushed from their homes and ran through the streets as the tremor hit off Sumatra’s west coast at 5:16 pm (1016 GMT), 47 kilometres (29 miles) northwest of Padang.
It was felt in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, 940 kilometres (585 miles) away, and sent frightened office workers streaming out of buildings in nearby Singapore and the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
Dozens of aftershocks followed, including the major one on Thursday which the US Geological Survey measured at 6.8 and said struck on land 225 kilometres (140 miles) southeast of Padang.
Indonesian authorities measured the quake at 7.0 magnitude but said there were no immediate reports of casualties.
The Indonesian earthquakes followed a massive 8.0-magnitude tremor that spawned a deadly tsunami in the Samoan islands of the South Pacific.
Both disaster zones sit on the volatile “Ring of Fire,” an arc of seismic instability around the Pacific rim.
Geologists said Padang was vulnerable to more quakes and tsunamis, and that recent events could even set off three major volcanoes in West Sumatra.
Padang lies on the same tectonic faultline that cracked off Aceh, at the northern tip of Sumatra, in 2004 to trigger the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 220,000 people.