Palu, Indonesia – After the magnitude 7.5 quake struck, Sharif was pinned down by a fallen beam as his home collapsed. The food vendor shouted to his wife Umi and their children to never mind him and run as fast as they could to the mountains. Sharif feared the worst was coming.
While the six-metre-high tsunami that followed did not reach their part of the city, suddenly the ground underneath their home melted in water that turned to mud in a post-quake phenomenon called “liquefaction”.
The entire neighbourhood was swallowed by the earth. Sharif hasn’t been heard from since.
Six days after a series of deadly disasters hit Palu, rescuers continued to dig through mountains of debris on Wednesday, as hope fades of finding more survivors – and the death toll steadily rises.
According to the latest from Indonesian authorities, at least 1,407 people have been killed and more than 800 others injured, with countless more feared buried or trapped in the rubble in the city’s centre. Several neighbouring districts, meanwhile, have not yet been reached.
From the flight to Palu, a wide area of the city appeared to be indiscriminately bulldozed with crushed homes and commercial buildings, as well as crumpled cars piled on top of each other. In other areas, it seemed like an entire village had been shaved off – all that was left were brown patches of land.
On the ground, concrete structures looked as if they had been slashed in half diagonally, with glass doors and windows shattered, metal bars twisted, and walls buckled down by an unseen force.
At Palu airport, several hundred people left homeless by the disaster snaked through the tarmac, guided by dozens of soldiers to the C-130 Hercules planes dispatched by the Indonesian government to evacuate them. There was no panic, but weariness overwhelmed their faces, while the morning sun burned their skin with an orange glow.
Parents quietly carried their children in a shell-shocked embrace and volunteers helped an injured man up the plane ramp. Nearby, soldiers handed out aid to desperate victims.
Dozens of coloured tents sprang up as hundreds of people who lost their homes camped out, waiting for the next available flight. Areas of the airport building itself were damaged and departing and arriving passengers were forced to wait outside.
Trying to get home
Among those who arrived on Wednesday on a commercial flight from the neighbouring city of Makassar was 22-year-old Rashid, son of the man, Sharif, who is missing since Friday. Like many Indonesians, he goes by one name.
Rashid has been working as a labourer in the capital, Jakarta, to help his parents financially. As soon as he heard about the disaster, he immediately packed his bag. For the last few nights, he had been sleeping at airports waiting for the earliest connecting flight to Palu. Access was restricted by the government after the disaster, so he had been unable to reach his hometown earlier.
“When the earthquake happened, I immediately called my father. But nobody answered his phone,” he told Al Jazeera on board the flight from Makassar, tears streaming down his face. “I’m still trying to get hold of him.”
It was only on Monday when he heard his mother Umi and four siblings survived the massive wall of water after racing up the mountain.
“My teenage brother was not home at that time, so my mom had to carry three children in her arms while running up the mountain,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
“But my father, he could not even run away.”
Located on the island of Sulawesi, about 1,560km northeast of Jakarta, Palu is a coastal city in the innermost portion of a cove that opens to the Makassar Strait. Because of its geographical position and terrain, the city of about 350,000 has become a natural catch basin for raging and deadly waves, such as the one spawned by the earthquake on Friday.
Adding to the disaster, the Indonesian news website Tempo reported the country’s tsunami early warning system had not been functioning properly since 2012. Tempo quoted the spokesman of the national disaster management agency, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, as saying that Indonesia had no tsunami or buoy detection devices since that year.
It’s feared the death toll will increase.
Speaking on Wednesday during a visit to Palu, President Joko Widodo told reporters after reviewing the demolished Roa Roa hotel that 30 people are believed buried under its debris.
“Rescuers are still looking for 30 more people inside the hotel and they won’t stop until they’re found,” he said.
Nugroho noted there are still areas not yet reached by authorities, including the city of Donggala which has a population of 300,000 and was the epicentre of the powerful quake.
The coastal road to Donggala from Palu has reportedly been obliterated by the tsunami. But Donggala is also situated at a higher elevation compared with Palu, so it is unclear how much damage the high-speed waves brought to the city.
Nugroho was also quoted in news reports as saying the Indonesian government will remain selective about foreign aid.
He said priority would be given to Australia, the United States, Morocco, South Korea, the European Union, China, Singapore, Turkey, the Philippines and Switzerland.
According to the Jakarta Post, so far South Korea has donated one million dollars, the EU $1.6m, and China $200,000 through the Red Cross.
In the aftermath of the disaster, aid organisations have raced in.
Oxfam Indonesia spokesman Irwan Firdaus told Al Jazeera the organisation is working with several local aid groups to help reach the most needy victims in the next two weeks. Firdaus flew into Palu on Wednesday to assess the situation on the ground.
Oxfam hopes to reach 500,000 people with essential aid supplies such as ready-to-eat food, water purification kits and shelter packs.
“The government is taking the lead in the emergency response,” he said. “But in some areas, basic supplies have not reached yet. The work needs to be faster for volunteers to distribute food and water.”
The aid group, World Vision, which has been operating in the country for decades, also dispatched staff to help children and families who have lost their homes.
But the emergency response is being hampered by the devastation that knocked out power lines, bridges, damaged airport infrastructure, and exhausted water and power supplies, Doseba Sinay, national director of World Vision in Indonesia, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Indonesian Red Cross are appealing for $22.4m to be able to respond to the emergency in Palu.
More than 175 volunteers and staff from the Indonesian Red Cross are currently in Palu conducting search-and-rescue operations, providing medical support, and distributing relief goods.
Local Individuals are taking the dire situation into their own hands as well.
On Wednesday, Rashid told Al Jazeera he brought food, water and medicine for his surviving family members with him to Palu.
“I have been thinking about the situation of my family. When my mother and siblings ran away, they only had the clothes they wore and nothing else. I hope that I can help with the little I am bringing with them,” he said as he left the airport to find them.
Rashid said he had a long way to walk to the mountain to see his family.