Cheap building fatal in quake

BAWURAN, INDONESIA — BAWURAN, Indonesia -- His village is a huge pile of rubble today, and for Sopo Nyono the reason seems simple: bricks without mortar.

For years, people in this part of Java built their houses by piling bricks on top of each other with only layers of dirt between them. There was no mortar or reinforcing bars, just a coating of cement to keep the stack from toppling over.


When a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck central Java on Saturday, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these buildings turned into tombs. The death toll from the quake soared past 4,300 yesterday as troops and volunteers pulled bodies from the rubble.

Searchers said the quake claimed a disproportionately large number of poor victims because they had been the ones most likely to live in the cheap, mortarless houses.


"Everything was destroyed, totally," said Nyono, the treasurer of Bawuran village. "Most people who died were those who couldn't move fast, the children and the old people."

As rescuers completed a second day of combing through the rubble brick by brick, the chance of finding survivors dwindled. Rescuers said it seemed unlikely that anyone could have survived for more than a short time under the piles of brick and dirt, which would have left few life-saving pockets of air.

"We are still hoping that perhaps there are survivors," said Ady Toyibi, who was leading a squad of volunteer searchers in Bawuran. "But when we check the sites, we can't hear any sound of people screaming or crying. There is no sound at all."

The earthquake struck at dawn near the ancient city of Yogyakarta in central Java. The temblor caused extensive damage to carved-stone reliefs at the renowned ninth-century Hindu temple of Prambanan, one of the area's major tourist attractions.

Authorities said two-thirds of the quake's dead lived in Bantul, the densely populated area south of Yogyakarta.

Among the neighborhoods that make up Bantul is the village of Bawuran, where survivors were camping by the side of the road and burning lumber from their ruined homes to cook their meals.

The main street was a kaleidoscope of debris: bricks, roof tiles, clothing, mattresses, household appliances, bits of food and countless other household items in a massive jumble.

The mosque, once the village's grandest and sturdiest building, was still standing but suffered heavy damage. Its second story was leaning precariously to one side.


Of 2,000 people who lived in Bawuran, 54 were killed and 375 were injured, said Nyono. At least half the homes in the village, including his, had been built all or in part without mortar and collapsed, he said.

Few survivors escaped with anything more than the clothes on their back, said Nyono, 54. He carried a donated toothbrush in his shirt pocket. It was one of his few possessions.

About 90 army and police troops and 35 volunteers from the Indonesia Federation of Speleology, an association of cave explorers, combed through the rubble yesterday and found five bodies. In the first hours after the quake Saturday, the volunteers had pulled 43 villagers from the debris. The searchers said they will resume the hunt today for six more villagers who are believed dead.

Cahyo Alkandana, a documentary filmmaker and president of the cavers' association who was coordinating the volunteer search of the village, said quality of construction was a key factor in the deaths.

"Poor people were more likely to die," he said. "The high number of people killed is because of the quality of the houses. The good, new buildings did not collapse, but this model is going to collapse because it's cheap."

Alkandana, 40, said he and his crew were filming inside a nearby cave when the earthquake struck. Rocks began raining from the roof and they feared they would be buried alive.


"We panicked," he said, but soon found their exit from the cave had not been blocked.

Learning of the magnitude of the disaster by radio, they immediately joined the rescue effort. The volunteers from his association, mostly university students, removed bricks by hand as they hunted for buried people.

Nearby, residents salvaged items from their homes and built temporary shelters with plastic sheets and pieces of corrugated metal roofing. They said they had received little assistance from outside and estimated they had about two days' supply of food. They had been plagued by dozens of aftershocks and frequent rain, they said.

Richard C. Paddock writes for the Los Angeles Times.