Haunted by Disaster, Volunteers Search for Survivors in Indonesia

Heavy rains drenched the collapsed mountainside, making sludge of the rust-colored soil. Intermittently, the earth violently shuddered as an aftershock jolted the hills.

Adi Fitriadi Wijaya, wearing a plastic rain poncho and a red helmet, and equipped with only a shovel, faced a mound of earth that could be trapping dozens of those still missing after Monday’s devastating earthquake and ensuing landslides in Indonesia’s mountainous West Java.

Time was running out.

Mr. Adi, 46, a tattooed father of three, is a small-business owner and motorcycle enthusiast who lives two hours away in the regional capital, Bandung. He is also one of Indonesia’s hundreds of volunteer rescue workers who sprang into action after the earthquake hit and news of the devastation spread, as he has done for at least a dozen major disasters, including the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

In a country where the threat of natural disasters — tsunamis, floods, landslides, earthquakes and often more than one at once — is a daily reality, many of those working alongside government responders and military personnel are everyday citizens like Mr. Adi who put aside their livelihoods and rush to the center of catastrophe.

Search-and-rescue teams looking for victims in Cugenang village.Credit…Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times

The number of those confirmed dead from the earthquake in the agricultural area of Cianjur rose to 271 on Wednesday, disaster response officials said, with more than 2,000 others injured and dozens still unaccounted for more than two days after the shallow, 5.6-magnitude earthquake. Officials said nearly 62,000 people had been displaced from their homes as of Wednesday.

About a third of the dead were children, according to officials. On Wednesday, rescue workers uncovered in the rubble a 6-year-old boy who had survived, next to the body of his grandmother.

More than 1,000 volunteer rescuers were working among government responders and thousands of members of the army on Wednesday, according to Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency, scouring a wide area to locate bodies and survivors in disparate villages roiled by the earthquake. They used pitchforks, excavators, concrete saws and, at times, their bare hands to dig through rubble and mounds of collapsed hillsides in hamlets separated by windy mountain roads, many of which were rendered impassable by landslides.

“The contour condition or topography of Cianjur is mountains and villages, this is what makes it difficult for us,” Henri Alfiandi, chair of the rescue agency, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

With rescue efforts delayed by the rain and aftershocks, hundreds were still waiting to find out what had happened to family and friends. For a third day, some villages remained cut off by land, and officials said helicopters had been dispatched to provide aid.

A villager, Muhammad Azid, sifting through the rubble of his house in Cianjur.Credit…Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times

Muhammad Ilyas, 39, arrived at the site of a landslide with friends in search of a missing relative he calls his grandfather. At the time of the earthquake, the 80-year-old man, an Islamic preacher, had set out on his blue Yamaha scooter for a nearby village, a trip he makes every day to teach the Quran. The man’s wife and grandchildren were awaiting news at home, Mr. Ilyas said.

His mangled scooter was pulled out of the hillside on Wednesday, less than a kilometer from the village he was headed to. With identifications still pending for the four bodies found nearby, his family still hadn’t received confirmation of his status by Wednesday afternoon.

The expanse of the affected areas and blocked roadways were also hampering efforts to get aid to the tens of thousands who have been displaced from their collapsed homes and are living in makeshift dwellings, said Selina Sumbung, chief executive of Save the Children Indonesia.

The Indonesian government has made recent strides on infrastructure projects but in terms of installing preventive measures like reinforced hills or stricter building codes that would have limited the damage from Monday’s earthquake, investment has been lacking because of the country’s decentralized system of governance, Ms. Sumbung said.

“We’re part of the G20, we’re the largest economy in Southeast Asia, we do have a lot of resources and a lot of capacity,” she said. “We’re just not pulling our weight.”

Villagers being treated in an emergency tent at a hospital in Cianjur on Wednesday.Credit…Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times

Also, in past disasters, many families would end up rebuilding their homes in the same spot, prone to the same geological calamities. Some would turn down government offers of relocation, because they were resigned to the risks and wedded to their means of living, Ms. Sumbung said.

“A lot of Indonesians will say inshallah, if God wants me to die, then so be it,” she said. “A lot of Indonesians live with that fact, that it’s a disaster-prone area.”

Mr. Adi has seen the aftermath of many of those disasters firsthand — floods, tsunamis, a volcanic eruption — at times offering his help at three or four in the same month. He volunteers because his mother instilled in him at a young age the value of helping others, a sense made stronger by periods when he struggled with alcoholism, he said.

He has passed down the spirit of volunteerism to his children: His 15-year-old son has been working as a certified rescuer since he was 13, Mr. Adi said, providing assistance during two disasters.

Volunteers looking for victims at Cugenang village on Wednesday.Credit…Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times

“I feel the joy when I see people smile when we could save their loved ones. Remembering those smiles is new energy for me when I’m stressed out at work,” said Mr. Adi, who recalled being given a duck and rambutan by one grateful family whose relative he helped save.

“I had a joy in return that I couldn’t buy with money,” he said. “We are not rich people here, but we just want to give something to others.”

On Monday evening, Mr. Adi arrived in remote Gasol village with other volunteers from his motorcycle club and pulled two people out of the rubble — one alive, the other not. On Wednesday, he was carving away at a buckled hillside, stopping for a smoke when the rain grew heavy.

The gravity of the disaster and the anguished families weighed no less on government responders like 34-year-old Alexander Tabanci, working his third major disaster in 12 years. He and members of his team, who were brought in from the capital, Jakarta, found a 25-year-old pregnant woman in the ruins of a two-story building, he said. Both the woman and the baby were dead.

Officials said helicopters had been dispatched to provide residents with aid.Credit…Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times

“I’m from poor family, so I know how it feels to suffer. I want to be useful to other people,” said Mr. Tabanci, the son of a schoolteacher. “I consider all the disaster victims like my own family, so I do this job wholeheartedly.”

With low numbers of new recruits in recent years, government rescue agencies struggle with a shortage of workers, so trained civilian volunteers like Mr. Adi are vital to disaster response, he said.

“We are very glad to have these volunteers with us,” he said. “They are extraordinary. They help us so much.”

Leo Galuh contributed reporting from Bandung, Indonesia.

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