The death toll from Indonesia‘s earthquake and tsunami has climbed past 2,000, as authorities prepare to end the search for thousands of victims feared buried in mud and rubble in the hardest-hit neighbourhoods of Sulawesi island.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesperson for the country’s disaster agency, told reporters on Tuesday that the toll from the September 28 twin disasters had climbed to 2,010.
He said authorities will hold prayers on Thursday to mark the end of the search in the Petobo, Balaroa and Jono Oge areas of Palu city, where the quake caused loose soil to liquefy, swallowing houses and burying the occupants with them.
Efforts to retrieve bodies, many entombed under mud and rubble as deep as 3 metres, will not continue because of the difficult terrain and advanced state of decomposition that made the bodies unrecognisable and could cause contamination, Nugroho said.
“On October 11, we will hold joint prayers in Balaroa, Petobo and Jono Oge to end the evacuation of bodies,” he told a daily news briefing on the relief efforts.
Most of the bodies have been found in Palu, where more than 10,000 rescue workers continued to scour expanses of debris.
“We’re not sure what will happen afterwards, so we’re trying to work as fast as possible,” said rescue worker Ahmad Amin, 29, referring to the deadline, as he took a break in the badly hit Balaroa neighbourhood.
“There are so many children still missing, we want to find them quickly,” said Amin, who is from Balaroa and has relatives unaccounted for.
At least nine excavators were working through the rubble of Balaroa, picking their way through smashed buildings and pummelled vehicles.
At least a dozen bodies were recovered, according to a Reuters news agency photographer.
The decision to end the search on Thursday has angered some relatives of the missing but taxi driver Rudy Rahman, 40, said he had to accept it.
“As long as they keep searching, I will be here every day looking for my son,” said Rahman, who said he had lost three sons in the disaster. The bodies of two were found, the youngest is missing.
“This is the only thing I can do, otherwise I would go insane,” he told Reuters, choking back tears. “If they stop, what can I do? There are four metres of soil here. I couldn’t do it on my own.”
While the official search will end, Nugroho, the disaster agency spokesman, said authorities will not stop villagers from continuing to dig through the ruins for their loved ones.
The stricken areas, which now look like vast wastelands, will be turned into memorial parks to remember the victims and survivors will be relocated to safer locations, he said.
Nugroho said the disaster agency has not yet been able to verify unofficial estimates from village chiefs in Balaroa and Petobo that 5,000 people are missing in the two areas.
He said the region had recorded 508 aftershocks since the magnitude 7.5 earthquake, which caused a giant wall of water that destroyed large swaths of land in Palu and surrounding areas.
The disaster destroyed more than 65,000 homes and buildings and displaced more than 70,000 people.
Thousands are still living in temporary shelters and tents across Palu, but life is beginning to return to normal in some areas, with plans for redevelopment underway, officials said.