Indonesia’s vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, has warned the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami that struck the island of Sulawesi could rise into the thousands, as more than 150 aftershocks hit the region.
The confirmed death toll from the disaster has reached 420, state media said on Sunday, but that is expected to rise significantly as rescuers scramble to reach the worst-hit areas. Kalla said there had been “no word” yet about casualties in Donggala, home to 300,000 people.
There were particular concerns about the whereabouts of hundreds of people preparing for a beach festival that had been due to start on Friday, a spokesman for the BNPB national disaster agency said.
At least 540 people had been badly injured, the agency said, as hospitals struggled to cope with the influx of casualties, setting up open-air clinics to treat the injured.
Some of those wounded, including Dwi Haris, who suffered a broken back and shoulder, rested outside Palu’s army hospital, where patients were being treated outdoors due to continuing strong aftershocks. Tears filled his eyes as he recounted feeling the violent earthquake shake the fifth-floor hotel room he shared with his wife and daughter.
“There was no time to save ourselves. I was squeezed into the ruins of the wall, I think,” said Haris, adding that his family was in town for a wedding. “I heard my wife cry for help, but then silence. I don’t know what happened to her and my child. I hope they are safe.”
Rescuers working to retrieve people from the Roa Roa hotel in Palu said they could hear the voices of people inside but did not have the heavy equipment needed to get to them.
Munculnya lumpur dari permukaan tanah yang menyebabkan amblasnya bangunan dan pohon di Kabupaten Sigi dekat perbatasan Palu akibat gempa 7,4 SR adalah fenomena likuifaksi (liquefaction) Likuifaksi adalah tanah berubah menjadi lumpur seperti cairan dan kehilangan kekuatan. pic.twitter.com/uxTODECMEX
— Sutopo Purwo Nugroho (@Sutopo_PN) September 29, 2018
The Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, who is to visit the region on Sunday, said the military was being called in to the region to help search-and-rescue teams get to victims and find bodies following Friday’s 7.5-magnitude earthquake and 1.5-metre (5ft) tsunami.
The cities of Palu and Donggala remain without power and fuel supplies are running low. Some government planes carrying relief supplies managed to land at the main airport in Palu, although officials said it would likely remain closed to commercial flights for days.
On Sunday BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho shared video showing the “liquefaction” of the land when the tsunami struck.
In Palu – home to 350,000 people – partially covered bodies lay near the shore and survivors sifted through a tangled mess of corrugated steel roofing, timber, rubble and flotsam. One man was seen carrying the muddy corpse of a small child.
“Many corpses are scattered on the beach and floating on the surface of the sea,” one local resident, Nining, told kompas.com.
One of the first casualties of the earthquake, 21-year-old Anthonius Gunawan Agung, is being hailed a hero after he stayed in the air traffic control tower as the earthquake hit, to make sure that a flight to Bali could take off safely.
“When the earthquake occurred, Agung had cleared Batik Air for takeoff. He waited until the aircraft was safely in the air before leaving his air traffic controller cabin,” Yohanes Sirait, a spokesman for state-owned flight navigation service AirNav Indonesia, said in a statement on Saturday.
Agung then jumped from the control tower as it was collapsing, but he did not survive the fall.
Many residents did not return to their homes as night fell and slept in makeshift shelters, terrified that powerful aftershocks could topple damaged homes.
A Facebook page for information on Palu city has become a pop-up ledger for missing persons, with family members posting pictures of their missing children, wives, fathers and grandparents, in the hope that someone will find them.
Some voiced criticism of the agency that lifted the tsunami warning. The agency said it followed standard operating procedure and made the call to “end” the warning based on data available from the closest tidal sensor, around 200km from Palu.
“We have no observation data at Palu. So we had to use the data we had and make a call based on that,” said Rahmat Triyono, head of the earthquakes and tsunami centre at BMKG. He said the closest tide gauge, which measures changes in the sea level, only recorded an “insignificant” 6cm wave and did not account for the giant waves near Palu.
We have heard nothing from Donggala and this is extremely worrying