PADANG, Indonesia – Rescuers rushed back into the rubble Tuesday after a woman's cries for help were reported coming from a collapsed hotel six days after Indonesia's devastating earthquake — but the search was in vain.
Australian experts used specialized voice detection equipment to scour the remnants of the Ambacang hotel in four different places after a worker said he heard a woman's voice. They found no signs of life, said team leader John Cowcutt, and demolition of the building's remnants resumed.
The episode underscored the agony of the families of thousands of people who are missing after last Wednesday's 7.6-magnitude quake collapsed buildings in Padang city and sent landslides crashing down onto villages in the surrounding hills in West Sumatra province.
The official death toll rose Tuesday to 704 and could reach into the thousands, officials said.
"I've been coming here every day for any kind of news," said Firmansyah Blis as he watched backhoes dig chunks of concrete from the wreckage of the hotel, where his wife was last seen. "I doubt she is alive. I think the search crews tried hard to find her. I just want them to find her body."
Betty Diraja, 39, also waited outside the hotel Tuesday in the hope of receiving news about Aswad, her husband and father to their three children.
"It was too early to leave his beloved kids. They still need his guidance as a father," said Diraja, sobbing quietly.
Hotel worker Rizal said he heard a woman's faint cries coming from within the hotel's remnants on Tuesday, even over the roar heavy machines.
"When I walked among the rubble, I heard a weak voice screaming 'Help, help, help!"' said Rizki, who like many Indonesians uses just one name. "I am confident it was from a woman who survived. Her voice was getting weaker and fading away."
Officials called in search crews, though they conceded the chances of finding more survivors was extremely remote.
"We stopped for a moment so that rescuers could check if there really was a voice," said Lt. Col. Haris, an army officer helping in the recovery operation, wondering aloud, "How long can someone survive without food or water?"
Demolition crews had begun knocking down damaged structures around Padang and hauling off debris in trucks. Around six bodies were removed and loaded into waiting ambulances to be taken to hospital morgues.
The broader search for survivors was halted Monday — five days after the 7.6-magnitude quake struck off the coast. Aid workers from at least 20 countries were focused on caring for the hundreds of thousands left homeless.
Six helicopters shuttled instant noodles, blankets, milk and other aid to the isolated hillside villages of the Padang Pariaman district, where landslides buried more than 600 people, said Ade Edward, head of operations control at West Sumatra's Center for Disaster Management.
"We have stopped looking for living survivors and are maximizing the use of heavy equipment," he said. "We hope to clear the rubble in two weeks so we can start reconstruction."
Some survivors complained that aid was slow in coming.
Eni Fahriani came to an aid center near the provincial governor's office in Padang from her village 25 miles (40 kilometers) away on Tuesday after the five packets of noodles and an egg her family of six was given by a nongovernment group five days earlier ran out.
"Even one drop of drink we have not yet got from the government," she said. "I saw a mount of aid on TV, I saw broadcasters showing package of basic foods, toiletries, toothbrushes even clothes. ... Where are they going to? We need it now."
Emergency workers faced an uphill battle trying to reach remote communities in the hills of Pariaman, where whole villages were wiped out by landslides. The force of the quake gouged out mountainsides and dumped tons of mud, boulders and trees, burying hundreds of people alive.
Heavy rain since Sunday and thick wet mud also made it difficult for aid workers to reach the stricken areas, said Gagah Prakoso, a spokesman for the Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency.
The weather bureau says strong winds and storms could hit the area for days.
It was unclear precisely how many people are without shelter, but more than 88,000 houses were flattened, U.N. and Indonesian agencies said, and another 100,000 public buildings damaged.
Government minister Aburizal Bakrie said $600 million was needed to repair infrastructure.
Authorities have started spraying disinfectant on hundreds of collapsed buildings "to prevent the spread of corpses' odor and diseases," said Rustam Pakaya, head of the health ministry's crisis center.
Decaying bodies pose very low risk of spreading disease, experts say, but officials often carry out such spraying anyway to reassure rescue workers and survivors.