Earthquakes are life examining – even if you are lucky enough to escape being trapped in the rubble of a
collapsed building. The first earthquake I experienced, changed my sleeping habits forever.
It was Los Angeles – January 16, 1994 .. 4:34 am.
A 6 point 8 earthquake hit and I remember the terrifying feeling of being left helpless alone in the dark. So, now I sleep with a flashlight or torch beside my bed. In Padang reporting on the recent earthquake – I adopted a new strategy .. each night I hung my clothes over a chair at the door with the hotel room door unlocked! .. ready for a quick escape if it starts to shake.
I might be a robber’s dream come true – but surviving an earthquake is a bit like sport. You want to win! Winning is survival, second place hurts.
Very few hotels were left undamaged – cracks in the walls, collapsed awnings, broken water pipes .. were the norm. The first night, home was the tiled floor of a garage at a nurses residence at the damaged Padang Central Hospital. Laying down alongside Graham Morrison and Erwin Pieterwisz two cameramen I was working with, in the morning we joked that the floor wasn’t that bad once you got use’ta the mosquitoes, the 30 degree heat and the sirens from ambulances bringing in the dead to a make shift morgue 50 metres away. Other people had it a lot worse – they were sleeping in the grass outside what was left of their damaged houses. I was ‘on the clock’ and would be compensated for the long hours.
Things improved overwhelmingly the next night .. a mattress in a Hotel dining room with 12 other journalists, TV engineers and cameraman. Small things matter and it was a bed, a place to brush your teeth and take a ‘nature break’. I tried to forget the roof panel that was dangling down directly above my head – it was a place to sleep.
The people are what impressed me the most about Padang. Their strength and determination to pick themselves up and get on with it. Five story houses/apartments had been reduced to two stories as the earthquake pancaked the floors entombing anyone who couldn’t get out within 30 seconds.
One of the first places we stopped was a car dealership with an apartment above where the proprietors lived. A mother, father and three kids couldn’t get out and were killed instantly. There I met the only surviving son .. a kid of about 14. Without emotion or hesitation he just told me his parents, brother’s and sister were gone. He was waiting for heavy machinery to come and dig his family out.
At another stop – local rescue workers were digging out the body of a woman, stuck, jammed (I’m not sure of the best words to use) .. trapped between two floors. You could see her in the rubble – long dark hair, yellow pants with a black top. Just 20 meters away was her immediate family and relatives. I cannot comprehend what it must have been like for them – sitting, waiting, and watching. I liken the family members to security guards – they were going to protect the site until their loved one was brought out. It was a scene being played out at hundreds of sights across Padang City.
When I went to Padang Airport to interview the Australian Urban Search And Rescue members 48 hours after the earthquake had struck, I was met by a 60 strong team of Swiss Rescue Specialists along with their dogs. I thought great – they are here to save people. Then I thought .. the Swiss have travelled all the way from Switzerland and the Australian’s haven’t even arrived yet! When the Aussies did arrive, one confided to me privately .. “Yes .. the Swiss’ first thought is humanitarian .. Unfortunately, Australia’s is politics!”
My gig was to be on the lookout for Aussies. Australian’s caught up in the quake. After three days it seemed more and more unlikely any Australian’s had been trapped. We heard of one Aussies’ escape from the Ambacang Hotel, but as I told the foreign editor back in Sydney .. “Mate .. it’s 95% Muslim here – there are no bars or strip clubs .. any Aussies that come to Padang go straight out on boats surfing.” Suffice to say – the only other Australian’s I came across were either Darwin soldier’s, Queensland firies or AusAid reps.
AusAid are a funny bunch on the ground – suspiciously they turned into doves once I mentioned I was from Channel Nine. Australia’s help in Padang is a positive story and it’s Australian taxpayer dollars at work – just tell it. Yet, even the most senior AusAid representative didn’t have permission to speak to the media. I believe it was so the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith could have his moment in the spotlight – it was a pity, because help is help and politics creates delays.
In a sign of how desperate some people had become, at the site of the Australia Army water purification units – locals were pirating the fresh water. The Engineers had placed a bladder or water tank to hold the converted sea water until trucks arrived to transport the fresh water to holding tanks in the suburbs. The people who lived close to the sight couldn’t wait for a holding tank to be established in their neighbourhood so they just syphoned it from the source! It started with one person and a piece of garden hose, then within 30 minutes two dozen men, women and children had arrived with hoses, tins, bottles and buckets – ‘pirating’ the water. The most alarming sight was the condition of the hoses and buckets. Some looked like petrol hoses – one man had two oil drums, to which he explained that he had cleaned them out! ‘Detergent .. Detergent’, he said.
A woman of about 50 years old then attempted to ask if the water was safe to drink? – by rubbing her stomach. I then reached into the five gallon bucket she had filled, scooped out a hand-full of water .. sipped it and gave her a thumbs up! Off she then went, struggling with the bucket between her legs – on her way home.
By Tuesday, people began to get their confidence back again. Slowly shops and restaurants re-opened and the ‘lookie-loos’ came out .. families on motorbikes – Dad driving, son or daughter on the handlebars, another in the middle and Mum on the back. As a Westerner’s, people would smile at us and say Hi, always interested in our equipment. Then one afternoon I understood why? A man speaking broken English came up and said – “Thank you for being here, you will tell the world what has happened to us and we will get help .. thank you for coming.”
Back at our Hotel – six days on, a certificate in a picture frame appeared nailed to the wall near the reception desk. Written in Indonesian, it was a certificate confirming despite the numerous cracks in walls, holes in the roof and the leaking water tank – the Hotel was structurally safe. Even so, I still slept with the door unlocked and my clothes slung over a nearby chair.