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Updated: October 6, 2009 23:18 IST

Agony of families in Indonesia

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A young boy is assisted by his grandmother as he balances a box of humanitarian aid on his head on Tuesday, in a village north of Pariaman, Indonesia.
A young boy is assisted by his grandmother as he balances a box of humanitarian aid on his head on Tuesday, in a village north of Pariaman, Indonesia.

Rescuers rushed back into the rubble on Tuesday after a woman’s cries for help were reported coming from a collapsed hotel six days after Indonesia’s devastating earthquake — but the search was in vain.

Australian experts used specialised voice detection equipment to scour the remnants of the Ambacang hotel in four different places after a worker said he heard a woman’s voice. They found no signs of life, said team leader John Cowcutt, and demolition of the building’s remnants resumed.

The episode underscored the agony of the families of thousands of people who are missing after last Wednesday’s 7.6-magnitude quake collapsed buildings in Padang city and sent landslides crashing down onto villages in the surrounding hills in West Sumatra province.

The official death toll rose on Tuesday to 704 and could reach into the thousands, said officials.

“I’ve been coming here every day for any kind of news,” said Firmansyah Blis as he watched backhoes dig chunks of concrete from the wreckage of the hotel, where his wife was last seen. “I doubt she is alive. I think the search crews tried hard to find her. I just want them to find her body.”

Betty Diraja (39) also waited outside the hotel Tuesday in the hope of receiving news about Aswad, her husband and father to their three children.

“It was too early to leave his beloved kids. They still need his guidance as a father,” said Ms. Diraja, sobbing quietly.

Hotel worker Rizal said he heard a woman’s faint cries coming from within the hotel’s remnants on Tuesday, even over the roar heavy machines.

“When I walked among the rubble, I heard a weak voice screaming ‘Help, help, help!”’ said Rizki, who like many Indonesians uses just one name. “I am confident it was from a woman who survived. Her voice was getting weaker and fading away.”

Officials called in search crews, though they conceded the chances of finding more survivors was extremely remote.

“We stopped for a moment so that rescuers could check if there really was a voice,” said Lt. Col. Haris, an army officer helping in the recovery operation, wondering aloud, “How long can someone survive without food or water?”

Demolition crews had begun knocking down damaged structures around Padang and hauling off debris in trucks. Around six bodies were removed and loaded into waiting ambulances to be taken to hospital morgues.

The broader search for survivors was halted on Monday — five days after the 7.6-magnitude quake struck off the coast. Aid workers from at least 20 countries were focused on caring for the hundreds of thousands left homeless.

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