The death toll on the island of Sulawesi climbed to 1,347, according to the country’s disaster management agency, as rescue teams scrambled to locate survivors.
Authorities and aid workers struggled to reach the affected areas made inaccessible by damaged infrastructure. Palu, a small city about 1,500km northeast of the capital, Jakarta, and other parts of Sulawesi island were the hardest hit by Friday’s magnitude-7.5 quake that triggered six-metre-high tsunami waves.
At Palu’s stricken airport, about 300 victims attempted on Wednesday to board Indonesian military transport planes to be evacuated to Makassar, capital of South Sulawesi province. The injured and those with children received priority seating on the Hercules C-130 aircraft.
“The evacuation was orderly and there was no panic. But they obviously looked tired and stressed out,” Al Jazeera’s Ted Regencia reported from the scene.
Outside Palu’s Mutiara Al Jufri Airport, hundreds of others were camped out, some receiving medical treatment, others awaiting a chance to escape.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, told reporters in Jakarta late on Tuesday rescuers were “racing against time” to find anyone alive.
More than 65,000 homes have been damaged and at least 60,000 people have been displaced and are in need of emergency help, according to the government. The UN says as many as 200,000 are in desperate need of relief supplies.
Earlier, President Joko Widodo called for reinforcements in the search for survivors, saying everyone had to be found.
There was mounting concern over Donggala, a region of 300,000 people north of Palu and closer to the epicentre, and two other districts – with a combined population of about 1.4 million.
Initial reports from Red Cross rescuers who reached the outskirts of Donggala district were chilling.
“The situation in the affected areas is nightmarish,” Jan Gelfand, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) office in Jakarta, said in a statement.
“The city of Palu has been devastated and first reports out of Donggala indicate that it has also been hit extremely hard by the double disaster.”
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, reporting from Palu, said there was “a pungent smell of decomposing bodies” in the city amid daily burying in mass graves.
“Not all the bodies have been buried, I can say that from the smell we encountered as we got down to sea level,” he said. “It’s a very dark city in every sense of the word.”
With roads cut off by landslides and major bridges broken down, physical access remains a “real challenge”, according to Nigel Timmins, Oxfam’s humanitarian director.
“The other one is information,” he told Al Jazeera. “Electricity is down, telecommunication is down. For many people, their first priority is family tracing.”
Muzair, a resident of the Petobo neighbourhood in Palu, said five of his relatives are still missing.
“I hope the government can help find them,” he said. “The soil was churning and then it suddenly rose up and buried the houses. In my heart I said if this is the time I die, what more could I do? I just prayed to God.”
Children are reportedly showing up alone at medical centres, searching for their parents.
Because of its location on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” Indonesia is prone to earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions and is well versed in responding to disasters.
A massive earthquake off Sumatra island in 2004 caused a tsunami that killed 230,000 people around the region, the majority of them in the Indonesian province of Aceh.
That was the last time the country declared a national disaster.