Desperate searches as Indonesia tsunami-quake death toll tops 800

Mass burials, desperate searches as death toll in Indonesia quake-tsunami tops 800
3 min read
30 September, 2018
Aid is trickling in while overwhelmed search-and-rescue workers comb the rubble for survivors and authorities bury the dead to stop the spread of disease.
Medical team members help patients outside a hospital in Palu [Getty]

The death toll in Indonesia's quake-tsunami disaster nearly doubled to more than 800 on Sunday, as ill-equipped rescuers struggled to reach scores of trapped victims, health officials resorted to mass burials and desperate residents looted shops for food and water.

"The casualties will keep increasing," said national disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, whose agency announced 832 deaths.

"Today we will start the mass burial of victims, to avoid the spread of disease."

Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said the final death toll in the north of Sulawesi island could be in the "thousands" since many regions have still not been reached.

"It feels very tense," said 35-year-old mother Risa Kusuma, comforting her feverish baby boy at an evacuation centre in the gutted coastal city of Palu. "Every minute an ambulance brings in bodies. Clean water is scarce. The mini-markets are looted everywhere."

Indonesia's Metro TV on Sunday broadcast footage from a coastal community in Donggala, close to the epicentre of the quake. Some waterfront homes appeared crushed but a resident said most people fled to higher ground after the quake struck.

"When it shook really hard, we all ran up into the hills," a man identified as Iswan told the TV. 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo arrived in the region on Sunday afternoon.

In Palu on Sunday aid was trickling in, the Indonesian military had been deployed and search-and-rescue workers were doggedly combing the rubble for survivors - looking for dozens feared trapped under one hotel alone.

"Communication is limited, heavy machinery is limited... it's not enough for the numbers of buildings that collapsed," Nugroho said.

The 7.5-magnitude quake struck on Friday, sparking a tsunami that ripped apart the city's coastline.

Save The Children program director Tom Howells said access was a "huge issue" hampering relief efforts.

"Aid agencies and local authorities are struggling to reach several communities around Donggala, where we are expecting there to be major damage and potential large-scale loss of life," Howells said.

Dozens of corpses lay in an open courtyard at the back of a Palu hospital, baking under a fierce tropical sun, with only one building separating it from an open triage site on the opposite side.

The disaster agency said it believed about 71 foreigners were in Palu when the quake struck, with most safe.

Three French nationals and a South Korean, who may have been staying at a flattened hotel, had not yet been accounted for, it added.

C-130 military transport aircraft with relief supplies managed to land at the main airport in Palu, which reopened to humanitarian flights and limited commercial flights, but only to pilots able to land by sight alone.

Satellite imagery provided by regional relief teams showed severe damage at some of the area's major ports, with large ships tossed on land, quays and bridges trashed and shipping containers thrown around.

Hospitals were overwhelmed by the influx of injured, with many people being treated in the open air. There were widespread power blackouts.

Images showed a double-arched yellow bridge had collapsed with its two metal arches twisted as cars bobbed in the water below.

A key access road had been badly damaged and was partially blocked by landslides, the disaster agency said.

Indonesia is one of the world's most disaster-prone nations.

It lies on the Pacific "Ring of Fire", where tectonic plates collide and many of the world's volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.

Earlier this year a series of powerful quakes hit Lombok, killing more than 550 people on the holiday island and neighbouring Sumbawa.