By Ahmad Syamsudin
The final death toll in the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Sulawesi island could be in the “thousands,” Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said Sunday, as a national disaster agency spokesman said 832 bodies had been recovered.
Rescue workers sifted through the ruins of buildings in Central Sulawesi after a powerful quake pummeled neighborhoods in the province on Friday, spawning a tsunami that swept away dozens of homes. Local seismologist said the shallow quake carried a 7.4 magnitude, but the U.S. Geological Survey said it had registered a 7.5-magnitude, a temblor capable of producing widespread damage.
“The number of dead victims stood at 832,” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency, told reporters.
“The number of casualties is expected to increase because many victims have yet to be identified and many others are still buried under the rubble,” he said, adding that at least 540 people were seriously injured and 16,700 were displaced.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla warned that the death toll “could be in the thousands.”
“We still don’t know the extent of the disaster there,” he told reporters.
Most of the victims were found in the city of Palu, but 11 deaths have been recorded in neighboring Donggala regency, Sutopo said, adding that rescuers faced extreme difficulty trying to reach the area because debris littered the roads.
He said officials were still awaiting report from other affected areas, including the Sigi regency near Palu.
“During the Aceh tsunami, in the first hour the death toll was at seven, and in the afternoon it was 40,” he said, referring to the Indian Ocean tsunami which was spawned by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra on Dec. 26, 2004.
That tsunami killed at least 230,000 people in a dozen countries, including about 170,000 in Aceh alone.
On Sunday, rescuers rushed to a badly damaged shopping mall in Palu after reports that lighting struck the collapsed third floor of the building, Metro TV reported.
Rescue chief Novri, who goes by one name, said workers were still unable to get in.
“We’re working very hard to get at the victims. They can survive for seven days as long as they are hydrated and don’t suffer fractures,” he said.
“Hello, anybody there? Can you hear us?” rescuers shouted, hoping for a response.
A woman was rescued from the collapsed Roa Roa hotel in Palu on Sunday, more than 48 hours after the quake, Retno Budiharto, leader of the rescue mission, told local station Kompas TV.
The woman, identified as Fitri, was found between concrete rubble and her bed on the second floor of the seven-story hotel, where up to 60 people were believed to be still trapped, rescue officials said
“Fortunately she was lying on the mattress, so she survived,” Retno said.
Meanwhile, residents looted a damaged shopping mall on Sunday, ignoring warnings about the danger posed by an unstable building, authorities said.
Television footage showed people coming out of the mall with goods in their hands.
Widodo visits victims
President Joko Widodo flew to Palu and visited a devastated neighbourhood.
He said roads were badly damaged, power lines were toppled, fuel was scarce and the airport wasn’t fully operating.
“I appeal to the people to be patient,” he said. “We are working to address this.”
Foreigners in affected areas
A total of 71 foreigners were known to be in the quake-affected areas, Sutopo, the disaster-agency spokesman, told reporters.
Three French nationals and a Malaysian remained unaccounted for, while 31 Thais and 21 Chinese were safe, he said.
Sutopo said there were many people on the beach when the tsunami slammed into Palu.
“There were no sirens,” he said. “Many people didn’t know about the threat and they carried on with their activities on the beach.”
The Meteorological, Geophysical and Climatological Agency (BMKG) issued a tsunami warning after the quake, but it was lifted about half an hour later.
But videos taken by mobile phones soon emerged on social media, showing waves smashing houses and sweeping away vehicles in the coastal area.
BMKG has defended its decision after criticism that the warning was lifted too early, saying that it was based on a reading of a tide gauge in Mamuju, located about 230 kilometres (143 miles) away.
Friday’s quakes came after at least 555 people were killed and more than 400,000 were made homeless in August in a series of powerful quakes that devastated the island of Lombok.
Indonesia straddles the so-called Ring of Fire, an area in the basin of the Pacific Ocean known for volcanic eruptions and deep seismic shift of the tectonic plates that often produce major earthquakes.