Padang Earthquake Survivor Story

Padang students scramble out of a collapsed building after the magnitude 7.6 earthquake hit the city that is used by surfers as a jumping off point for the Mentawais. Photo: Rueters

Padang students scramble out of a collapsed building after the magnitude 7.6 earthquake hit the city that is used by surfers as a jumping off point for the Mentawais. Photo: Rueters

On the morning of September 30th 2009, I awoke relatively rested two days after guiding my previous surf charter. I knew I’d missed the peak of the swell as I had three other times earlier in the season and was laying in bed wondering how good the waves were in the Mentawais. “It’s absolutely cooking,” I thought as I went next door to the Chinese coffee shop to order my morning coffee.

After a little time on the computer and a quick shower I had plans to meet my friend Amen May (one of the owners of Kandui Resort) for breakfast and a walk around the city of Padang. When stuck in Padang between surf charters, Padang can be very boring so Amen and I realized that we had not caught up with each other for almost a year so conversation a good feed and exercise were in the cards for us.

After an early lunch we started off to the malls and shopping centers of Padang. With tons of cars, mopeds and bustling passers-by we weaved in and out of people like ants on an ant farm. After living in west Sumatra for a while and feeling how active the fault lines are here and also being a California carpenter specializing in earthquake codes for commercial and residential buildings, earthquakes seem to be the topic of frequent discussions. So while shopping and commenting on the structures we frequented that day we decided to visit a girl that I was courting who was working in the Andalas shopping center in downtown Padang. We visited for a while and then Amen and I thought that we should continue our trek through the city. We said good-bye and soon Amen and I were off again.

We decided to walk down the street to a corner where we periodically hang out to catch up on conversation, people watch, and a well-deserved rest from a day of walking the city.

About 30 seconds after we sat down on a wall just on the corner of a busy intersection we started to feel a slight rumbling and shifting from the earth below us. What we had been talking about throughout the day was materializing into immediate horror. Amen and I quickly stood up looking directly into each other’s eyes and telepathically saying to each other without talking, “How big do you think this one is going to be?” The sheer power and strength of Mother Nature can be so spellbinding as we felt the rumble of her bowels moaning and churning as if it were some kind of horror film impending negative spirits from the womb of hell.

We made our way into the street where we both new that it was to be the safest place. With no buildings in the immediate vicinity we both chose our fate and stood back-to-back getting ready for the most intense dynamic show that “Big Ma Ma” was going to display for us. We were worried about the oncoming traffic but that was soon to stop because the drivers lost complete control of their vehicles and came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the street. What happened next was almost indescribable…

The grinding and growling directly beneath us mixed with the cries of scared and distraught people soon became dreamlike, like Armageddon.

As the quake progressed Amen and I held on to each other and made minor adjustments to stay on our feet. Loud cries were coming out of surrounding buildings as workers and residents ran out of collapsing buildings. When we thought that the quake should start to subside it only gained momentum—it felt that it would never stop. The grinding and growling directly beneath us mixed with the cries of scared and distraught people soon became dreamlike, like Armageddon. The ground continued to make waving motions that were jarring and most violet. Over the last 7 years Amen and I have both been through major earthquakes in the 8.0 ranges. Being that the epicenter was directly below us in this particular quake it was by far the most intense that we have ever experienced.

Buildings within our view were now falling and crumbling at an abrupt rate. We looked across the street at one particular building and saw a man run to the roof as the building was collapsing and it looked as if he got swallowed by an industrial animal engulfing him in smoke and concrete. After about 30 seconds and when the quake finally subsided we were left with a view that still haunts me: A body was being carried out of a local motorbike dealership and the man looked dead. People were walking the streets screaming with blood flowing from head to toe. I then remembered Monica, the girl I was courting that works in the Andalas Plaza. As we walked toward the plaza I had an overwhelming feeling of sadness. And what I saw I could not believe.

Where Amen, Monica and I were talking was soon the place where the Minang Kabau style roof [a giant roof pitch that comes to a point] was now laying. We would have been crushed if we all were still there talking. Panic arose in my stomach as I saw the plaza filled with smoke and debris and wondered where Monica was and if she was still trapped inside. I felt so powerless that I could not stop and help because Amen and I knew that we had to get to high ground fast because a tsunami could very well be on the way. When an earthquake lasts around 30 seconds the probability of a tsunami is far greater.

Toppled mosques in Padang, Indonesia. Photo: Rueters

Toppled mosques in Padang, Indonesia. Photo: Rueters

Now the madness was in full swing. Distraught people were crowding the street and most people were doing anything they could to get to their homes to see if they’re loved ones were still alive. I almost got ran over three times by people that were en route to see the conditions of their family’s. They were not about to stop for anyone or anything.

We made a decision to get to the mountain rage that overlooks the city of Padang. We knew that we would be safer on higher ground and we would also be able to see the ocean and the whole city from the top of the mountain range.

With a lump in my throat, a knot in my stomach and a tear in my eye, Amen and I went into survival mode. Complete autopilot. We increased our pace and started through the city that looked like a wasteland.

It seemed every other building we saw was rubble and the ones still standing were twisted and contorted and unsafe. Each step we took revealed more damage and more danger. Then the fires started.

We ran into the courtyard to find a woman laying on the ground with an entire building laying on her foot and half way up her calf. The pressure of the building was literally keeping the woman’s leg from bleeding.

We walked by the Depo Hotel and it was completely demolished. Having friends that work there I was seriously wondering if there was any way someone could have survived the damage. I still have not heard. Then one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen. A group of seven or eight people approached us and pleaded for our help. We ran into the courtyard to find a woman laying on the ground with an entire building laying on her foot and half way up her calf. The pressure of the building was literally keeping the woman’s leg from bleeding. It was almost like the women’s leg was cauterized shut by the building. The woman was stuck and we could not lift the building up to pull her leg out. Her children soon showed up and her daughters face read a story that I could see so clearly as she approached her mother. It went something like this: “Mom from this distance you look fine. Why are you laying on the ground?” Her face revealed confusion with each step she took toward her mother.

When she got close enough she saw that her mothers leg and the building were merged and that her mother was stuck. Her and her brother pleaded for us to help their mother and both started to panic. I knew that this would not help the situation at all. Then the woman herself pleaded to me in Indonesian to please help her and if I didn’t then she would just die there. She was in complete shock and I knew that that would wear off soon. Pain and delirium would start to take more effect and that would be even more difficult to deal with. There is also something else that goes on in situations like that, especially in Indonesia. No one can ever agree on what should be done and when an idea comes about it is always shot down. It’s the “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians syndrome.” So I asked someone to get a pickaxe.

First the quake, then the rain, then fire. Hell on Earth in Padang. Photo: Rueters

First the quake, then the rain, then fire. Hell on Earth in Padang. Photo: AP

The villagers said they didn’t know where to get one but someone was going to return with morphine for the woman. If I had a pickaxe I think I would have been able to break the concrete around the leg far enough to free it. My next suggestion was to get a machete. If you know Indonesia like I know Indonesia then you know there is always a machete close by. When I suggested that I would place a tourniquet on the woman’s leg and would have no problems at all with cutting the woman’s leg free the children started screaming and there was debate from the crowd of men with “better ideas”. Indonesia is very 3rd World and there is no heavy machinery available that could lift a building off a woman leg. No morphine ever showed up while we were there.

Amen was very focused and ensured me that we gave it our best shot and if they were not going to let us help them that others could be helped and more importantly that we need to save ourselves and get to higher ground. So feeling powerless once again we moved on.

Working our way down the major streets of Padang toward the bridge to the mountains we witnessed two houses getting burned to the ground. There is no fire station or firemen in Padang so most people just stood powerless watching they’re whole lives burn up a cloud of smoke.

Amen and I continued to work our way to the mountain observing all of the disasters of Padang. With the earthquake occurring around 5:30pm it was already starting to get dark and to top things off a storm came with the twilight hour that kept confusion at its peak.

We started up the mountain fast. If there was another earthquake there was a possibility of being crushed by houses, coconuts, boulders and landslides on the way to the top of the mountain.

When arriving to the top we turned and looked at the city. It was a little past twilight and for such a disaster it was an amazing view. There were fires illuminating in the sky and you could see a glowing over the city that looked surreal.

We stayed and talked with a couple of families at the top of the mountain and Amen and I don’t think that the families actually realized how bad it was in the city. We had some valuables that we wanted to get from our homes because we knew under the circumstances that looting would start and being western white people our houses would be the first to get robbed. While we were on the mountain Amen and I devised a recon plan to get clothes, food, water and our valuables. Then it was necessary for us to return to the mountain to spend the night, but first we needed to incorporate ideas and get our thoughts straight in case of a tsunami.

Two hours later we started back down the mountain in the dark during a storm to see the conditions of our houses and get whatever we needed to survive.

45 minutes later we’re back in the heart of the city and we approach the resort office where Amen stays when he is in Padang. When we entered the building the whole inside was destroyed. Everything in the office was now on the floor. With just a cell phone as a flashlight Amen headed upstairs and I quickly rummaged through the office for anything we could use. I noticed there was a motorbike in the gated patio so I was on the hunt for a key that I found. We knew we had to be quick. We did not want another quake to start while we were in the building. After Amen grabbed his computer and some money he ran downstairs where I had the motorbike started. So with only a half tank of gas we proceeded to go to my house for my valuables.

We were in awe of the destruction. There were houses and buildings on top of cars. There were fires everywhere.

Driving through the city we saw more and more damage. We were in awe of the destruction. There were houses and buildings on top of cars. There were fires everywhere. Houses and cars were so twisted together it seemed they had been made that way. Families were setting up beds in their dilapidated houses to get out of the storm and because they had nowhere to go. They were in total danger if another quake or even aftershock hit.

We arrived at my house and I remembered that my roommates’ dog was still inside. I opened the door and called her name and to my surprise she came out from hiding and was totally fine. I ran into the house with a flashlight and when I entered the kitchen I saw that the floor was bulging upward from the quake. There were huge cracks in the walls and everything else was on the floor. Knowing that I had to work fast, I got a backpack and jammed some clothes in it. I also made sure that I had a flashlight. I grabbed my fanny pack that holds all of my important paperwork such as flight tickets and my passport. The only problem was that my passport was not in the pack; it was at the immigration office along with Amen’s. The neighbors next door said that it was ok for me to leave my roommates dog there because they had nowhere to go. We bid them farewell and proceeded to get some food and water from a shop that was open. All of the store contents were on the floor so we purchased what we needed and made our way back to the top of the mountain.

When we arrived at the top the families had put up a small tent because of the rain and storm. But nobody was under the tent. They were all crowded in a house next to where the tent was set up. It was obvious the storm ran them indoors and Amen and I were just happy to be under the canopy on safe ground.

Soon two men came from the house and asked us to come inside. We told them that we were happy just to be under the tent and thanked them for their hospitality but they would not take no for an answer. They insisted we come inside and spend the night with them. When we entered there were three families present. There were fathers, mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, sisters and brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles all huddled on the floor smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and telling what they knew about the earthquake.

At around 4am I woke up to an aftershock that sent me running out of the house at full speed. It subsided quickly and we all returned to sleep. The next morning Amen and I woke up and thanked the family for their hospitality. They begged us to stay for breakfast but we explained that we were in a hurry to get down the mountain. They asked us what our plan was and at that point I can’t recall if we had a plan or not so we thanked the family again and started back down the hill to the motorbike.

The police were eating cake, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes while the military was trying to unbury over 1000 people that were fighting for their lives in the rubble.

We got on the motorbike and decided that we needed to get some fuel just in case we wanted to get out of town. We had thoughts of motor biking out of the city all the way to east Sumatra and catching a ferry over the Malacca straights to Thailand. This dream soon dissipated when we found out that there was no fuel left in Padang. We stopped and contemplated where to begin looking then decided to go to the police station. When we arrived they said that they did not know how we could get fuel. In the meantime they were all filling up their personal motorbikes with fuel that they were taking from boats in the harbor. Not long after that they were eating cake, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes while the military was trying to unbury over 1000 people that were fighting for their lives in the rubble. They were nice enough to offer us some of their cake so we took a piece because we were so famished and hypoglycemia was starting to set-in. I started to get shaky irritable and discontent because my blood sugar was low.

We hit the town in search of fuel when I spotted a truck that had been smashed by a building. The truck was completely immobilized so I pulled out my handy siphoning hose that I strategically placed in my bag for this exact reason. As I was approaching the truck some friends of mine that work in a local home stay pulled up and asked how I was doing. I was so happy to see that they were alive after hearing that their home stay had collapsed like a three story construction pancake. They informed me that everyone had got out relatively safely and no one was seriously injured. At that exact moment I felt a wave of panic and shakiness from my case of hypoglycemia. My friends soon left and a few local people saw what I was about to do and took advantage of my health situation and started looting the vehicle that I was going to “borrow” gas from. I pulled a bottle of water out of my bag and drank it as fast as I could. Amen and I saw the local city people getting desperate and we knew it would not be long before heavy looting and strong-arm robberies would be taking place. We did what we could, we tried to help where we could and now it was time to get out. Just take us out of the equation. For the time being we were done with Padang. Done.

We wanted to get out of the major part of the city where food, water and fuel was becoming very scarce and people were becoming more and more desperate by the minute. Our fuel was running out quickly as we started on the road to the airport so I proceeded at 40 kilometers an hour and pushed forward with big ol’ Amen on the back of the scooter holding a backpack and both of our computers in the pouring rain.

We arrived in the airport parking lot with only fumes left in the tank and saw airplanes taking off and landing and thought that aid had arrived. We parked the motorbike and ran toward the entrance where I saw a white western woman. I approached her to ask questions about aid and flights. I found out that she was a reporter and she found out that we came from the heart of the city. So she took down our names and we told her what the situation was like and what we saw. We told her that food, water, and fuel was scarce and that there had been no electricity in the city as well. We told her to be extremely careful and that people were getting desperate. We bid each other farewell and Amen and I proceeded to the ticket window and asked for a flight to Jakarta.

To our surprise we were able to purchase a ticket and board. We talked of what we did and saw and thought it would be wise to call our families and let them know that we had survived this terrible situation.

The next morning I was safely in a café in Jakarta having a cup of coffee and reading the paper to see that my interview was right there on the front page along with my name and age. I soon got emails from loved ones all around the world. They told me that they found out that I was still alive from the interview that I had at the airport. I also got a text from Monica, the girl I’m courting to find out that she survived the quake and is safely in Bankulu Sumatra with some family members.

I also wanted to include that the Indonesian people were so warm and hospitable in this time of crisis. We pay a high cost and sometimes our lives to be here living this dream and surfing waves of this magnitude and caliber. Most think we are crazy.—Greg Hunt

There is still a great need for help in Padang and the surrounding villages. Two trustworthy organizations accepting donations are the Red Cross and Surf Aid. Do what you can to help a region that surfers have come to cherish an love.