PALU • A team of French rescue experts began hunting through a huge expanse of debris on the outskirts of the Indonesian city of Palu yesterday, looking for hands, feet or any body parts of earthquake victims sticking out of the mud.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has said all of the victims of the 7.4 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck the west coast of Sulawesi island on Sept 28, killing more than 1,600 people, must be found.
Hundreds of people are believed to be entombed in slowly drying mud that enveloped communities in the south of the small city of Palu when the quake triggered soil liquefaction, a phenomenon that turns the ground into a roiling quagmire.
Mr Arnaud Allibert and four other members of the group Pompiers Humanitaires Francais were the first rescuers going into a grim expanse of jumbled debris, which is all that remains of the village of Petobo.
The team's task is to find and retrieve the bodies at the surface to clear the way for the heavy machinery to get in and dig deeper.
It's going to be a long, hard job.
"We're going to clear off all the superficial rubble that's on top and get into the spaces and see if there are bodies," Mr Allibert told Reuters as he surveyed a dreadful jumble of debris.
"If there are bodies in the spaces, we'll extract them. If we see body parts sticking out, we're going to dig to get the body out... It's a long-term job, but after that, they'll come with the heavy machinery," he said.
The official death toll from the quake and the tsunami it triggered stands at 1,649, but it will certainly rise.
Most of the dead have been found in Palu. Figures for more remote areas, some only just re-connected to the outside world by road, are only trickling in.
The national disaster agency says 1,700 homes in one neighbourhood alone were swallowed up and hundreds of people disappeared.
Mr Allibert said it would take months to find all the bodies.
"It might take four to five months to remove all the soil, and that's with the excavators," he said. "The excavators can't take huge amounts of soil because there are bodies underneath; you have to scrape the earth carefully."
Rescuers issued a fresh public health warning yesterday as more decaying corpses were unearthed.
"Most of the bodies we have found are not intact, and that poses a danger for the rescuers. We have to be very careful to avoid contamination," Mr Yusuf Latif, a spokesman for Indonesia's search and rescue effort, told AFP. "We have vaccinated our teams, but we need to be extra cautious."
Deputy Foreign Minister Abdurrahman Mohammad Fachir told a briefing in Jakarta that 25 countries and four foreign organisations had offered help and ministries were coordinating to facilitate the arrival of their aid.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE