NIAS, Indonesia (BP)–California Southern Baptist volunteers were among the first Americans to provide medical relief on the Indonesian island of Nias after an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 8.2 rocked the island March 28.
The volunteers were already in Indonesia to provide relief on Banda Aceh, one of the most devastated areas after the Dec. 26 tsunami that hit southern Asia. As many as 200,000 were killed in the province.
Don Hargis, Baptist men’s ministries specialist/disaster relief coordinator for California Southern Baptist Convention and leader of the volunteers, said the March 28 earthquake hit the day after the team arrived in Indonesia.
After learning about the temblor, Hargis said he realized “this is why God wanted me on the team” even though he had no formal medical training. “When we heard about the earthquake I realized that God wanted to use me because of my disaster relief experience.”
For the past 13 years, Hargis has coordinated CSBC disaster relief and has ministered in numerous natural disasters throughout the world. For more than eight weeks in 1994, he helped coordinate Southern Baptists’ response to California’s Northridge earthquake that shook the San Fernando Valley. During that disaster Southern Baptists from throughout the United States prepared more than 1 million meals and were involved in other ministries to victims.
From Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta, Hargis said the group flew to Medan, Sumatra, where they were split into two teams. One team continued with the plan to travel to Banda Aceh for tsunami relief while the other traveled to the island of Nias to be involved in assessment, search and recovery and a medical clinic.
Hargis was joined by Pat Murphy, an emergency medical technician and firefighter and member of First Baptist Church in Angels Camp; Josh Ramey, a paramedic and firefighter who is a member of You Bet Red Dog Community Church in Grass Valley; and William Sears, a medical doctor and member of Capistrano Valley Baptist Church in San Juan Capistrano.
Hargis reported that Sears and Ramey took a 12-hour car ride and 10-hour ferry trip in an effort to get to Nias as soon as possible. However, the two men arrived about the same time as Hargis and Murphy who had waited for a flight to the island.
The men said Gunung Sitoli, the capital of Nias, was almost destroyed by the earthquake that lasted about three minutes. Hargis said the concrete structures in the city were devastated by the temblor and roads were cracked beyond recognition, making travel difficult.
Shortly after arriving on Nias, the California Southern Baptist volunteers met with a team of Norwegian and Spanish firemen who are members of an organization known as “Firefighters Without Borders.”
Murphy recalled that as soon as they met the group, a Norwegian leader asked the CSBC team, “Is Jesus with you?” He said Hargis’ reply was, “Jesus is always with us.”
Both Murphy and Ramey said they were “excited” to be involved in the earthquake relief efforts on Nias because of their “skill-sets.”
“This was a new incident that had just occurred,” Ramey said. “This was an opportunity for me to offer my lifesaving skills” to help in a time of crisis.”
Murphy agreed, noting “there was an immediate need … and I knew that I would be able to use the skills I had learned as a firefighter to hopefully save some lives.”
He recalled that the CSBC team was assigned an unusually hard-hit area believed to have few survivors. “Just before we arrived, the Norwegian and Spanish team had rescued an 11-year-old boy. Our team worked with them for the remainder of the day and didn’t find anyone else.”
On the second day of the trip, relief coordinators asked Hargis, Sears and Ramey to go to the village of Afulu on the other side of the island to work in a medical clinic, while Murphy was asked to continue his search-and-rescue mission in Gunung Sitoli.
Even though Murphy said he “was not excited about being the only California team member left in the city,” he was assigned an interpreter and eight Indonesian Christians with whom to work.
Murphy said his efforts in the Nias capital turned from rescue and recovery to “mostly recovery.” During a six-day stay in Gunung Sitoli, Murphy wasn’t able to rescue anyone, though he did recover seven bodies for families that he said were “very grateful.”
Murphy said he worked most of one day recovering the body of a young boy. Later that evening, Murphy reported the boy’s father drove 15 miles outside the city where the team was staying. The father, without saying a word, walked to Murphy and gave him a hug.
Meanwhile on the other side of the island, the other part of the team worked to evaluate and provide medical attention to villagers who had not been helped since the earthquake struck three days earlier.
Ramey said when the team arrived in Afulu, a 20-minute helicopter flight from Gunung Sitoli, at least 30 people were waiting to receive medical attention. The village did have a person trained in medicine but “not trained to deal with medical emergencies,” Ramey explained.
On the first day alone, he said the team evaluated eight villagers with “critical injuries” ranging from fractures to head injuries and serious infections.
“Initially, we saw people who sustained injuries in the earthquake,” Ramey said. “Later on we saw some villagers who were suffering from chronic medical problems.”
As the medical work became more routine, Ramey said he was able to travel outside Afulu with a villager to let others know there was a medical clinic available in the nearby village. It was on this outing that Ramey discovered a man whose back had been broken during the earthquake. Even though he could not be transported a long distance by land, the California team arranged for a helicopter to airlift him to Gunung Sitoli for treatment.
During their three days in Afulu, the team also was able, for a short time, to get a water filtration system working and demonstrate to the villagers how they could have clean drinking water.
Hargis, Murphy and Ramey agreed the relief effort was an extraordinary experience.
“I was absolutely physically and emotionally depleted,” Hargis said. “By the time it was over, I didn’t want to do any more.”
Hargis said God wanted him on the team to teach him an important lesson about his relationship with his wife. “I’ve been doing this [disaster relief] for 13 years, but I had never been this drained,” he admitted. “I realized that this was the first time I was not able to speak with my wife for any length of time. I was cut off from part of my power supply. God taught me that not only does He give me strength, but that my wife also energizes and helps me to be recharged.
“I learned that I am not the super-guy I thought I was,” Hargis admitted.
Ramey said the team was “able to really make a difference for people of the village. We were able to evacuate and treat people who would have been added to the casualty list if we had not been there.”
He added that Nias is considered one of the “most Christian-friendly areas in Indonesia.” But since relief workers were dealing with critical medical issues and did not know the language, “the opportunity of building relationships and talking to people was limited. The fact that we were there and helping the people was about all the witness we were able to do.”
Ramey said he didn’t think he would be able to leave his wife and two preschool children to be a relief worker, but “my wife encouraged me to go because she thought it was the right thing.”
“I’ve been interested and involved in local missions since being a Royal Ambassador [Southern Baptists’ mission organization for boys]. I believe the Lord opened the door for me to go.”
Murphy said the trip was his chance to get “a firsthand look at international relief work. I was impressed at what Southern Baptists are able to do overseas because of our commitment. We make a big difference in the lives of people.”
Hargis, Ramey and Murphy said they would be willing to return. Hargis believes Afulu is a “prime location” for Southern Baptists to dig a well and install a water filtration system.
All said they are sure many seeds were planted while in Nias. Hargis noted, “We were able to plant, others will come along to fertilize and water, and as the seeds take root and grow, fruit will be produced.”
Terry Barone is editor of The California Southern Baptist newsjournal. For more information about becoming involved in the California Southern Baptist Convention’s disaster relief ministry, contact Don Hargis at [email protected] or (559) 229-9533, ext. 246.