- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2006

BANTUL, Indonesia — A powerful earthquake flattened nearly all the buildings in this rice-farming town while residents slept yesterday morning, killing more than 3,700 in the nation’s worst disaster since the December 2004 tsunami.

The magnitude-6.3 quake injured thousands more in densely populated Java island, and it triggered fears that a rumbling volcano nearby would erupt. The earthquake struck at 5:54 a.m., local time, near the famed Borobudur temple complex, caving in roofs and sending concrete walls crashing down. Survivors screamed as they ran from their homes, some clutching bloodied children and the elderly.

The worst devastation was in the town of Bantul, where 80 percent of the homes were destroyed and more than 2,000 people were killed. Residents started digging mass graves almost immediately, with family members sobbing and reading the Koran beside rows of corpses awaiting burial beneath a blazing sun.

Village heads recorded their names so the victims could be added to the official death toll. Subarjo, a 70-year-old food vendor, sobbed next to his dead wife, his house destroyed.

“I couldn’t help my wife. … I was trying to rescue my children, one with a broken leg, and then the house collapsed,” he said. “I have to accept this as our destiny, as God’s will.”

It was the latest in a series of disasters to strike Indonesia, from the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Aceh province to a widening bird-flu outbreak to the threat of eruption from nearby Mount Merapi.

The quake’s epicenter was 50 miles south of the rumbling Merapi, and activity increased soon after the temblor. A large burst spewed hot clouds and sent debris cascading about two miles down its western flank.

Bambang Dwiyanto, head of the geological division of the Energy and Mineral Ministry, could not say whether the quake caused the volcanic activity, but warned that it could trigger a larger eruption.

“It will influence the activities of Mount Merapi, particularly in the lava dome,” Mr. Dwiyanto said.

Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago, is prone to seismic upheaval because of its location on the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanos and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin.

The quake yesterday was centered about six miles below the surface, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

Anthony Guarino of the CalTech Seismological Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said Indonesia has the second-highest number of erupted volcanos in recorded history, outside of Japan. It also has the largest number of volcanos in the world, 76.

As night fell across the disaster zone — stretching across hundreds of square miles of mostly farming communities in Yogyakarta province — tens of thousands of residents prepared to sleep on streets, in rice fields and in back yards, fearful of aftershocks. International agencies and other nations promised to send relief immediately.

Power and telephone service were out across much of the region, adding to the terror. After spending hours digging in vain through the smoldering debris, many said they were giving up their search for relatives or friends until morning.

“It’s just too dark,” said Sarjio, who was looking for his 40-year-old neighbor, believed to be trapped beneath the remains of her house. “There’s nothing we can do now.”

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered the army to evacuate victims and arrived with a team of Cabinet ministers to oversee rescue operations. He slept in a tent camp with survivors.

At least 3,731 were killed in the quake, command post officials from the affected districts told the Associated Press. More than half of the fatalities were in Bantul.

“The numbers just keep rising,” said Arifin Muhadi of the Indonesian Red Cross, adding that more than 3,400 people were hurt.

The United States responded with an emergency allocation of $2.5 million for assistance to victims.

“Through financial and material support, the United States is assisting with recovery efforts in coordination with Indonesian authorities, and we stand prepared to provide additional assistance as needed,” President Bush said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said U.S. Agency for International Development personnel are in Yogyakarta, the central Indonesian province that bore much of the quake’s impact.

Australia said it will send $2.3 million in emergency aid.

International agencies and other nations promised to send relief immediately.

The only foreigner reported killed or injured in the quake was a man from the Netherlands. U.S. Embassy spokesman Max Kwak said he did not know of any American casualties.

The city is 1,390 miles southeast of Aceh province, where an estimated 131,000 people died in the 2004 tsunami triggered by a magnitude-9.1 earthquake under the sea.

Neighboring Malaysia said it will send a 56-member search team, doctors and medical supplies, and the European Commission said it would release up to $3.8 million in emergency aid.

The United Nations’ World Food Program was sending a plane with 2 tons of medicine and eight truckloads of fortified noodles and biscuits, agency spokeswoman Brenda Barton said from the Rome headquarters.

UNICEF is sending 9,000 tarpaulins, 2,000 tents, health kits and hygiene kits, spokesman John Budd told CNN. He said a hospital and several health clinics had collapsed, and about 4,000 houses were destroyed.

Officials said the famed seventh-century Borobudur Buddhist temple, one of Indonesia’s most popular tourist attractions, was not affected by the quake.

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