Mass burial begins as Indonesia toll tops 800

By AFP

Palu • The death toll from Indonesia’s quake and tsunami disaster nearly doubled to 832 yesterday (at press time) and was expected to rise further, prompting authorities to announce mass burials in a
desperate attempt to stave off diseases.

As shattered survivors scoured makeshift morgues for loved ones, and  authorities struggled to dig out the living or assess the scale of the devastation beyond the city of Palu, grim warnings came that the eventual toll could reach thousands.

“The casualties will keep increasing,” said National Disaster Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, whose agency announced the jump in the toll from 420 earlier.

“Today, we will start the mass burial of victims to avoid the spread of diseases.”

This aerial picture shows the remains of the 10-storey Roa-Roa hotel in Palu. rescue workers clambered over the tangled remains of the hotel yesterday, hoping to dig out 50 to 60 guests still feared trapped (Pic: AFP)

Rescuers on Sulawesi island raced against the clock and a lack of equipment to save those still trapped in the rubble, with up to 60 people feared to be underneath one Palu hotel alone. Rescuers said they heard voices and a child’s cries from under the rubble.

Desperate survivors, now facing a third straight night sleeping outdoors, turned to looting shops for basics like food, water and fuel as police looked on, unwilling or unable to intervene.

The government was left with little option but to promise it would reimburse owners.

“Record everything taken, inventorise it. We will pay for it all,” said Security Minister Wiranto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited the region yesterday afternoon, urging a “day and night” effort to save all those who can be saved.

But the National Disaster Agency spokesman Nugroho indicated sheer power of will may not be enough.

“Communication is limited, heavy machinery is limited…it’s not enough for the numbers of buildings that collapsed,” he said.

Still, as dire as the situation in Palu was, it was at least clear.

In outlying areas, the fate of thousands is still unknown.

Indonesian VP Jusuf Kalla said the final death toll in the north of Sulawesi island could be in the “thousands” since many regions have still not been reached.

Indonesia’s Metro TV yesterday broadcast aerial footage from a coastal community in Donggala, close to the epicentre of the quake. Some waterfront homes appeared crushed, but a resident said most people fled to higher ground after the quake struck.

“When it shook really hard, we all ran up into the hills,” a man identified as Iswan told Metro TV.

The 7.5-magnitude quake struck last Friday, sparking a tsunami that ripped apart Palu’s coastline.

The National Disaster Agency said it believed about 71 foreigners were in Palu when the quake struck, with most safe.

Three French nationals and a South Korean, who may have been staying at a flattened hotel, had not yet been accounted for, it added.

Squads of orange-clad rescue workers clambered over the tangled remains of the Indonesian hotel yesterday, hoping to dig out 50 to 60 guests still feared trapped.

Authorities believed the 80-room Hotel Roa-Roa in the city of Palu was near capacity when the district was ravaged by the quake and a tsunami wave last Friday.

The tremor was also felt in the far south of the island in its largest city of Makassar and on neighbouring Kalimantan, Indonesia’s portion of the Borneo island.

As many as 2.4 million people could have felt the quake, it is believed.

The initial quake struck as evening prayers were about to begin in the world’s biggest Muslim majority country on the holiest day of the week.

As news of the scale of the disaster spread, the European Union announced €1.5 million (RM7.21 million) in immediate aid. — AFP