PALU, Indonesia -- Rescuers struggled Sunday to reach victims in several large coastal towns in Indonesia that were hit by an earthquake and tsunami, and authorities feared that the toll of more than 800 confirmed dead would rise.
With the area largely cut off by damaged roads and downed communications lines, military and commercial aircraft were delivering some aid and supplies to the hard-hit city of Palu on the island of Sulawesi, and others in the region.
But there was a desperate need for heavy equipment to reach possible survivors buried in collapsed buildings, including an eight-story hotel in Palu where voices were heard in 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.
With no heavy equipment available, search-and-rescue workers used their hands to frantically claw through the rubble, with the voices of trapped victims calling out from the debris spurring on the brute manual effort.
At least 832 people were confirmed killed by the quake and tsunami that struck Friday evening, Indonesia's disaster agency said, with nearly all of those from Palu. The regencies of Donggala, Sigi and Parigi Moutong -- with a combined population of 1.2 million -- had yet to be fully assessed.
"The death toll is believed to be still increasing, since many bodies were still under the wreckage, while many have not been reached," said disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.
With "catastrophic damage" in many areas, relief agencies braced for a large loss of life once teams could assess the effects in Donggala and other towns, said Tom Howells, program implementation director for Save the Children's Jakarta office.
"Aid agencies and local authorities are struggling to reach several communities around Donggala. ... We hold grave fears for many of the towns in this area," Howells said.
Bodies covered in blue and yellow tarps lined the streets of Palu, and officials said they were digging a mass grave for at least 300 of the dead.
It was not immediately known when the burial would take place, but "this must be done as soon as possible for health and religious reasons," said Willem Rampangilei, head of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency. Most of Palu's residents are Muslim.
The cries from beneath the Roa-Roa Hotel, which appeared to have toppled over with its walls splintered, went silent by Sunday afternoon. Officials had estimated about 50 people could be inside.
"We are trying our best. Time is so important here to save people," said Muhammad Syaugi, head of the national search and rescue team. "Heavy equipment is on the way."
Officials said they would deliver some assistance via Makassar, the biggest city on Sulawesi, an island of about 18 million people. Makkasar is at the southern end of the island, a 12-hour drive from Palu.
Metro TV showed about a dozen rescuers in orange jumpsuits climbing over debris with a stretcher carrying the body of a victim from the modest business hotel.
Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo toured Palu on Sunday and said rescuers were having difficulty reaching victims because of a shortage of heavy equipment.
"There are many challenges," Jokowi said. "We have to do many things soon, but conditions do not allow us to do so."
He said authorities were deploying more heavy machinery so emergency workers can help recover more victims today.
The stricken areas also needed medical supplies, fuel, fresh water and experts.
MAGNET FOR DISASTERS
It was the latest natural disaster to hit Indonesia, which is frequently struck by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis because of its location on the "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin. In December 2004, a massive magnitude 9.1 earthquake off Sumatra island in western Indonesia triggered a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries. More recently, a powerful quake on the island of Lombok killed 505 people in August.
Information is always fragmented in the immediate aftermath of a natural catastrophe. But Indonesia's disaster management machinery has seemed at times overwhelmed, even in a country that is geographically positioned to habitually endure earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes.
Sutopo said that he found out about the killer wave that inundated Palu, deluging a beach festival as it crashed over the sand, through social media and television reports.
"The disaster funding continues to decrease every year," Sutopo said. "The threat of disasters increase, but the [national disaster mitigation agency] budget decreases."
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, Sutopo said, was caused by 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 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.
"We ended the tsunami warning when the tsunami happened," Karnawati said.
NEAR THE EPICENTER
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 Donggala, the site closest to the epicenter of Friday's earthquake, aerial footage on Metro TV showed the sugary blond sands of beaches swept out to sea, along with some buildings. Some buildings in the town were severely damaged, with plywood walls shredded and chunks of concrete scattered on the pavement. Much of the damage, however, appeared limited to the waterfront.
Palu, which has more than 380,000 people, was strewn with debris from the earthquake and tsunami. A heavily damaged mosque was half submerged and a shopping mall was reduced to a crumpled hulk. A large bridge with yellow arches had collapsed.
The city is built around a narrow bay that apparently magnified the force of the tsunami as the waves raced into the tight inlet. Nugroho, the disaster agency spokesman, also said waves were reported as high as 20 feet in some places.
Looters hit a badly damaged shopping mall, apparently unconcerned for their safety amid ongoing aftershocks and the structure's questionable stability.
In one devastated area in Palu, residents said dozens of people could still be buried in their homes.
"The ground rose up like a spine and suddenly fell. Many people were trapped and buried under collapsed houses. I could do nothing to help," resident Nur Indah said, crying. "In the evening, some of them turned on their cellphones just to give a sign that they were there. But the lights were off later and the next day."
With hundreds injured, earthquake-damaged hospitals were overwhelmed.
Nugroho said 61 foreigners were in Palu at the time of the disaster. Most were accounted for, but one South Korean was believed to be trapped in the Roa-Roa Hotel, while three others from France and one from Malaysia were missing. The survivors were to be evacuated to Makassar.
Communications with the area were difficult because power and telecommunications were cut, hampering rescue efforts. Most people have slept outdoors, fearing strong aftershocks.
Imade Boby, a 35-year-old Jakarta resident, said Sunday afternoon that he hadn't been able to reach his parents or other family members in Palu since the quake. By late evening, however, he managed to get through on the phone.
"Finally I found my family in Palu, and thank God they are in good condition," he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Niniek Karmini, Margie Mason and Stephen Wright of The Associated Press; by Ainur Rohmah and Shibani Mahtani of The Washington Post; by Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono of The New York Times; and by Simon Roughneen and Shashank Bengali of the Los Angeles Times.
A Section on 10/01/2018
Print Headline: Indonesian disaster toll tops 800 people