Authorities in Indonesia have begun mass burials for victims of the tsunami that hit the city of Palu, as relatives of the missing combed through body bags for their loved ones and the search for survivors intensified.
In a desperate attempt to stave off the spread of disease in the devastated region, Indonesia’s national disaster mitigation agency authorised the burials. It began with teams of workers, their mouths covered by masks, laying 18 body bags in a trench.
At Poboya – in the hills above Palu – volunteers earlier dug the 100 metre-long grave, with instructions to prepare for 1,300 victims to be laid to rest. It was initially prepared for more than 300 bodies. More burials are expected to follow.
Willem Rampangilei, the head of the agency, said the mass burials “must be done as soon as possible for health and religious reasons”.
The move came amid the desperate search for survivors of the tsunami, which hit on Friday causing thousands of homes, hotels, shopping malls and several mosques to collapse. The wave, which reached six metres high in some areas, flattened the city.
The offical death toll on Monday stood at 832, but was expected to reach into the thousands. Hundreds of bodies have been found on beaches and authorities fear many may have been washed out to sea.
“Many corpses are scattered on the beach and floating on the surface of the sea,” one local resident, Nining, told local media.
“The casualties will keep increasing,” said disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, whose agency announced the jump in the toll from 420 earlier.
“Today we will start the mass burial of victims, to avoid the spread of disease.”
On Sunday, the Central Sulawesi administration declared a 14-day state of emergency. Sutopo said this would enable “both the regional and national government to mobilise personnel, logistics, equipment as well as money to fulfil the needs of the affected area and people.”
Rescue teams were yet to reach the region of Donggala, which has a population of 300,000 and was directly hit by the tsunami.
Rescuers were racing against the clock and a lack of equipment to save those still trapped in the rubble, with up to 60 people feared to be underneath one Palu hotel alone. Rescuers said they heard voices and a child’s cries from under the rubble.
A 25-year-old woman was found alive during the evening in the ruins of the Roa-Roa Hotel, according to the national search and rescue agency, which released photos of the her lying on a stretcher covered in a blanket.
Rescue crews were also working to free a 15-year-old girl trapped under concrete in her house after it collapsed on her family.
Unable to move her legs under the heavy concrete rubble, Nurul Istikharah was trapped beside her dead mother and niece in Palu. Rescuers struggled Sunday to control water from a leaking pipe, fearing the girl may drown.
There were also 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 BNBP disaster agency said.
Sutopo confirmed there was no electricity in Palu and Donggala, while drinking water and fuel were running out. There was limited access to heavy equipment needed to help rescue efforts, so the search for people trapped in the rubble was mostly being carried out by hand.
In a post to Twitter, the disaster agency spokesman also warned residents to be alert to the hoax forecasts of further tsunamis and earthquakes he said were appearing on social media.
Desperate survivors, now facing a third straight night sleeping outdoors, queued for fuel and food and in some cases, turned to looting shops for basics as police looked on, unwilling or unable to intervene.
A justice ministry official confirmed a mass prison outbreak, with about 1,200 prisoners escaping from three different detention facilities. Ministry of Justice official Sri Puguh Utami said inmates had fled from two overcapacity facilities in Palu and another in Donggala. The Donggala detention centre was set on fire and all 343 inmates were now on the run.
Others searched body bags for their loved ones.
Dwi Haris, who suffered a broken back and shoulder, rested outside Palu’s army hospital, where patients were being treated outdoors due to the 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.”
Others have centred their search around open-air morgues, where the dead lay in the baking sun – waiting to be claimed, waiting to be named.
Indonesian president Joko Widodo visited the region Sunday afternoon, urging a “day and night” effort to save all those who can be saved.
Widodo said rescue teams were having difficulty recovering victims from the massive earthquake and tsunami because of a shortage of heavy equipment.
He said authorities were deploying more heavy machinery that he hopes will arrive Sunday night so emergency workers could help recover more victims on Monday.
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.
Indonesia’s Metro TV on Sunday broadcast aerial 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.
The 7.5-magnitude quake struck Friday, sparking a tsunami that ripped apart Palu’s coastline.
The quake struck as evening prayers were about to begin in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country on the holiest day of the week, when mosques are especially busy.
“This was a terrifying double disaster,” said Jan Gelfand, a Jakarta-based official at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “We have heard nothing from Donggala and this is extremely worrying. There are more than 300,000 people living there. This is already a tragedy, but it could get much worse.”