Nearly 400 people have been killed after a powerful earthquake triggered a tsunami that hit Indonesia‘s central Sulawesi island.
The national disaster agency put the current death toll at 384, all of them reported in the tsunami-struck city of Palu, but warned the number was likely to rise as rescue efforts continued on Saturday.
In Palu – home to around 350,000 people – partially covered bodies lay on the ground near the shore, the day after tsunami waves triggered by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake came ashore.
Tomi Soetjipto, a journalist based in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, said officials feared a “far worse” situation in the neighbouring city Donggala, home to nearly 300,000 people.
“We haven’t heard any news in terms of casualties from there, and officials are foreseeing and fearing the worst,” Soetjipto told Al Jazeera.
The disaster agency, BNPB, also said there were concerns about the whereabouts of hundreds of people preparing for a beach festival due to start Friday evening in Palu.
VIDEOGRAPHIC: How tsunamis are formed pic.twitter.com/th6el2EoDY
— AFP news agency (@AFP) September 29, 2018
Meanwhile, hospitals in the city were overwhelmed by the influx of injured, with many people being treated in the open air, while other survivors helped to retrieve the remains of those who died.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster agency, said many people “were still doing their activities on the beach and did not immediately run” when the tsunami threat rose in Palu on Friday.
“The tsunami didn’t come by itself, it dragged cars, logs, houses, it hit everything on land,” said Nugroho.
Some people climbed six-metre trees to escape the tsunami and survived, he said before adding the tsunami struck at a speed of 800 kph, destroying buildings and infrastructure.
The damage in the area was “extensive”, he said, with thousands of houses, hospitals, shopping malls and hotels collapsed, a bridge washed away and the main highway to Palu cut off due to a landslide.
Strong aftershocks continued to rock the coastal city on Saturday morning, he said.
Dramatic video footage filmed from the top floor of a parking ramp in Palu, nearly 80km from the quake’s epicentre, showed waves of water bring down several buildings and inundate a large mosque.
“I just ran when I saw the waves hitting homes on the coastline,” said Palu resident Rusidanto.
The quake and tsunami caused a major power outage that cut communications around Palu, and on Saturday authorities were still having difficulties coordinating rescue efforts.
Road access to Palu from the east and the south were also disconnected.
The city’s airport remained closed after its runway and air traffic control tower was damaged in the quake but officials said they were preparing to reopen to allow aid to come in.
The city is built around a narrow bay that apparently magnified the force of the tsunami waters as they raced into the tight inlet.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo said the military was being called into the disaster-struck region to help search-and-rescue teams get to victims and find bodies.
“I’ve already instructed the coordinating minister for political and security affairs to coordinate all resources including the national disaster agency.
“I’ve also called the chief of the armed forces to work together in handling the emergency situation including the search and rescue operation, evacuation including preparing the basic needs needed,” said Widodo.
Cargo planes carrying doctors and aid are being sent to join the rescue efforts.
“We hope to immediately establish field hospitals,” Komang Adi Sujendra, director Undata Regional Hospital, said.
“We need tents, medicines, medical personnel, tarpaulins, blankets and more of other things. I hope people can help us so we can give victims all the aid they need.”
Soetjipto, meanwhile, added that emergency supplies from Jakarta and other cities near Palu will take time reaching the affected areas because of “bad roads”.
“Makeshift shelters are being erected in the cities nearby. For now, the majority of people there are staying outside their homes,” he added.
Indonesia’s meteorological and geophysics agency BMKG issued a tsunami warning after the earthquake, but lifted it 34 minutes later.
The agency was widely criticised for not informing a tsunami had hit Palu on Saturday, though officials said waves had come within the time the warning was issued.
The Palu area was hit by a less powerful quake earlier on Friday, which destroyed some houses, killed one person and injured at least 10 in Donggala, authorities said.
Indonesia sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is regularly hit by earthquakes. In August, a series of major quakes killed over 500 people in the tourist island of Lombok and destroyed dozens of villages along its northern coast.
Palu was hit by tsunami in 1927 and 1968, according to the disaster agency.