JAKARTA — The death toll from twin disasters on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, a major earthquake and the tsunami that followed, jumped to more than 800 on Sunday as rescue workers were only just starting to take stock of the wreckage — pulling out survivors buried under the rubble from a collapsed hotel, treating patients in tents and racing to get food and water to survivors.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman of Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency, said in a news conference Sunday that most of the deaths were in the badly hit city of Palu, with just 11 deaths reported so far from the town of Donggala. Rescuers have been trickling into Palu, but Donggala and some of the surrounding regions remain largely cut-off, with poor communications.
Officials continue to fear the worst and have braced for a fast-climbing death toll that could eventually be in the thousands.
“The death is believed to be still increasing since many bodies were still under the wreckage while many have not able to be reached,” Nugroho said. Photos on his Twitter page show bodies lined up in body bags, as police begin the grim task of identifying them and reporting the deaths to families.
The dead, he said, either drowned when the tsunami hit or were killed by collapsed buildings and rubble. Victims are being buried in mass graves, but all victims will later be “buried properly,” Nugroho said.
A 7.5-magnitude earthquake triggered a massive tsunami on Friday evening, which crashed into Palu, Donggala and the surrounding settlements. Officials on Sunday shared chilling videos and photos on social media of land “liquefaction” in the wake of the disaster, where the soil turns into something akin to quicksand and drags buildings along with it.
In Palu city, rescue teams were evacuating almost 50 people trapped in the runs of the Roa-Roa Hotel, a 50-room, eight-story hotel that collapsed after the earthquake. Several were pulled out alive, and rescuers could hear the screams and cries of others throughout the night. A correspondent for a local newspaper said on his Facebook page that at least three other hotels with guests in it have also collapsed.
Traumatized victims, many of whom were sleeping in tents and being treated for injuries outside their homes, continued to be shaken by aftershocks. At least 200 have hit the area since the quake, according to local officials.
Chaos was rife throughout the city of Palu, as survivors looted unstable shopping centers for food, clothing and water. Local media has reported that a prison wall collapsed, setting free hundreds of prisoners inside.
The Head of Palu Penitentiary, Adhi Yan Ricoh, told Indonesian magazine Tempo there were 560 inmates at the prison and more than half escaped.
“At that time, the electricity went out, and there were only a few officers. Moreover, they also panicked and tried to save themselves,” Adhi said.
Nugroho, the disaster agency’s spokesman, said a Hercules C-130 plane was deployed to the area to evacuate the hordes of people racing to get out of the city. Water, he added, was an urgent need.
“The water turned turbid, and cannot be consumed. Clean water is an urgent need for the people of Palu,” he said.
Thousands of homes, hotels, shopping centers, hospitals and other public facilities were damaged, Nugroho said. Hospital patients in Palu are being treated outside the building to avoid the danger of potential aftershocks.
International relief agencies were just starting to reach the area on Sunday, after hours-long overnight drives through landslide-prone areas and badly damaged roads. Dozens of calls made to residents and hotels in Palu were unsuccessful, an indication that widespread communications outages continue there.
Even as relief efforts were underway, the focus remained on why none of the area’s residents seemed to be warned of the impending disaster, and a tsunami alert that was quickly dropped by the Indonesian geophysics agency. The high number of casualties, Nugroho admitted, was caused by a limited early warnings, a lack of knowledge of the impending devastation and “limited shelter and spatial planning.”
“There is no sound of siren [or] sign of the tsunami. Many people don’t know the threat (of the tsunami) so they are still doing activities on the beach,” he said, including hundreds gathered there for a beach festival.
The head of Indonesia’s geophysics agency, Dwikorita Karnawati, said her agency immediately issued a tsunami warning after the earthquake before the tsunami occurred, reaching a maximum height of 6 meters, or about 20 feet. The agency estimated that the tsunami would occur at 5:22 p.m. local time, after it announced 15 minutes earlier that an earthquake had occurred and could trigger a tsunami. It ended the tsunami warning at 5:36 p.m.
Videos circulated online showed residents still milling around the beach, unconcerned, as those on higher ground tried to warn them of an impending tsunami.
“We ended the tsunami warning when the tsunami happened,” Karnawati said.
Indonesia is prone to earthquakes because of its location on the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.
In December 2004, a 9.1-magnitude earthquake off Sumatra in western Indonesia triggered a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.