Whole villages in Indonesia's quake zone were found obliterated by landslides Saturday, as rescuers searched desperately for up to 4,000 people believed still trapped in the disaster area.
The extent of the damage from Wednesday's 7.6-magnitude earthquake widened as attention turned to the hundreds of villages in the hills outside the Padang, a devastated city of one million which was worst-hit.
AFP journalists travelling from the coastal area on Sumatra island to the surrounding mountains encountered dozens of devastated houses on the steep roads, and then four villages buried by landslides.
A search and rescue officer from the local government named Topan said that up to 400 people could have perished in the four hillside villages alone.
"The difficulty in this rescue operation is that the houses are buried under the soil as much as four metres deep," he told AFP. "So far we have been using our hands to dig up the soil."
|Indonesian Red Cross staff load kitchen equipment onto a truck at Minangkabau international airport in Padang|
One body was seen lying in a stream nearby, but Topan said he expected to find many more. A 100-strong rescue team arrived on the scene but was unable to bring in heavy machinery because of the broken, narrow roads.
Bob McKerrow, head of the Indonesia delegation of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, said aerial photos showed the extent of the damage in the rocky, mountainous outlying regions. Related article: Aid efforts
He said hundreds of villages were in the disaster zone, and that the few which had been visited all reported deaths and serious injuries that were in need of treatment.
"Typically in every village, there's an old woman with a broken back with a gash on her arm and she's not moving. That's why we're sending in helicopters with medical teams," he told AFP.
In Padang, where hardly a single building has been left undamaged, rescuers were racing against time to haul any survivors from schools, hotels and homes that have been reduced to tangles of concrete and rubble.
Foreign rescue teams with sniffer dogs and infra-red equipment were being deployed to help overwhelmed and underequipped Indonesian emergency crews.
"We estimate about 3,000 to 4,000 people are still trapped or buried under the rubble," UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Indonesia El-Mostafa Benlamlih told AFP.
The United Nations has said that at least 1,100 people have died in the disaster while the government toll, which has not been revised since Thursday, stands at 777 but it has said it expects the figure to go much higher.
"I think the death toll is going to rise dramatically, the current figure of 1,200 is going to be very low from listening to people working at the scene. There will certainly be more than 2,000," McKerrow said.
Indonesia appealed for foreign aid Friday as the stench of decomposing bodies indicated that many trapped in the wreckage have already perished.
Experts said that with specialised crews now arriving, there was some chances of still finding survivors providing their injuries were not too serious.
"I've worked on big earthquake disasters and if you've got an air pocket you're ok," McKerrow said. "It's hot outside but cool inside. There's still hope if people have got air."
Specialist teams from Japan and Switzerland with infra-red equipment were working Saturday in Padang, he said, adding that he had heard reports of three or four people being pulled to safety early Saturday.
But the UN's Benlamlih said that the window of opportunity was closing fast.
"Generally there is a maximum of five days from the time the quake strikes for the buried or trapped victims to survive. We only have one or two days left to save them," he said.
One lucky survivor was 20-year-old Ratna Kurnia Sari, who was pulled limp and covered in dust from the ruins of a college on Friday after spending more than 40 hours buried beneath rubble.
The quake struck off Sumatra's west coast northwest of Padang on Wednesday, on a major faultline on the volatile "Ring of Fire" that scientists have long warned was a disaster waiting to happen. Facts: Earthquake pointers