Desperate hope for survivors at quake-shattered Indonesia hotel
PALU, Indonesia – With bare hands and a torch, Martinus Hamaele desperately dug through the rubble of Palu’s shattered Hotel Mercure in the hope of finding his missing daughter Meiren, nearly a week after a quake-tsunami disaster pounded the Indonesian seaside city.
It’s a race against time after authorities set a tentative deadline of Friday to find anyone still trapped under rubble, at which point the chances of finding anyone alive will dwindle to almost zero.
“We keep shouting ‘Meiren, Meiren, it’s me — your dad and your brother,” Hamaele told AFP Thursday.
“But there is no response, just silence.”
Standing outside the devastated beachside hotel, the 55-year-old recounted clambering through twisted steel and rubble, pulling five survivors from the debris shortly after the massive rumble.
“I asked those who were still alive to make noises by hitting things, to start knocking, so we could detect their location,” he said.
“We managed to make a small opening. Initially we thought it was impossible but I kept trying and never gave up.”
One of the five rescued was a pregnant woman, he added. But his desperate calls after his 20-year-old daughter, who was working at the hotel when Friday’s 7.5 magnitude quake and tsunami smashed Palu, have yet to be answered.
She is thought to be one of at least three people still trapped inside the badly damaged five-storey building, which has turned into a site of hope and despair for distraught relatives.
– ‘Always hope’ –
On Thursday morning, family members gathered outside the hotel, wandering amid the rubble or quietly watching as search teams readied special equipment and sniffer dogs to check for victims.
Most returned day after day and complained about what they described as a slow evacuation response by authorities.
“I’ve been here for three days but they just started here yesterday,” said Hadija, 47, who was waiting for news of her younger brother Didi.
“They are very slow.”
Members of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency and French NGO International Emergency Firefighters pulled one body from the hotel on Wednesday.
Sniffer dogs and specialist equipment like thermal detectors, sound sensors and scanners were deployed Thursday to try identify more victims of the disaster.
“There is always hope,” said International Emergency Firefighters president Philippe Besson. But he added that “the building is really extremely unstable… since yesterday, there has been so much wind that the building was starting to move on its own.”
Retno Budiharto, from Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, added: “There are at least three people in the building according to hotel management… There is a small possibility (they’re alive).”
Fitriana Supratia, from Jakarta Rescue which is assisting with the evacuation, said rescuers faced a number of challenges.
“The first floor is missing and the second and third have collapsed like a pancake,” she told AFP, her specially-trained sniffer dogs at her side. “The building is not stable, it can move any time and collapse.”
But the cautious approach will be of little comfort to families of the missing in this city of 350,000 on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, where dozens are also believed to be buried under the ruins of another hotel, the 80-room Hotel Roa-Roa.
Hamaele is hoping the search will be sped up so he can find his daughter. “Whether she is alive in critical condition or God wants something different, one thing is for sure: I want her to be found,” he said.