The death toll from a powerful earthquake and tsunami on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi has reached 420, state media said Sunday, as rescuers scrambled to reach the stricken region and survivors helped to retrieve the remains of those killed.
The official Antara agency quoted the head of the national disaster agency giving the latest toll in the coastal city of Palu, while authorities warned casualties were “increasing” as news arrived from remote areas cut off by the 7.5-magnitude earthquake and 1.5-metre (five feet) high tsunami.
At least 540 people had been badly injured, an agency spokesman said, as hospitals struggled to cope with the influx of casualties.
Indonesian president Joko Widodo said the military was being called in to the region to help search-and-rescue teams get to victims and find bodies.
Some government planes carrying relief supplies managed to land at the main airport in Palu, although officials said it would likely remain closed to commercial flights for days.
There were concerns over the whereabouts of hundreds of people preparing for a beach festival that had been due to start Friday, the disaster agency said.
In Palu — home to 350,000 people — partially covered bodies lay near the shore after waves hit the coast Friday.
Survivors sifted through a tangled mess of corrugated steel roofing, timber, rubble and flotsam up to 50 metres inland.
One man was seen carrying the muddy corpse of a small child.
Many did not return to their homes as night fell and slept in makeshift shelters, terrified that powerful aftershocks could topple damaged homes.
Hospitals were overwhelmed by the influx of those injured, with many people being treated in the open air.
The tsunami was triggered by a strong quake that brought down buildings and sent locals fleeing for higher ground as a churning wall of water crashed into Palu, where there were widespread power blackouts.
“We all panicked and ran out of the house” when the quake hit, said Anser Bachmid, a 39-year-old Palu resident.
“People here need aid — food, drink, clean water.”
I just ran
Dramatic video footage captured from the top floor of a parking ramp in Palu, nearly 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the quake’s epicentre, showed waves 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, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
About 17,000 people had been evacuated, the disaster agency said.
“This was a terrifying double disaster,” said Jan Gelfand, a Jakarta-based official at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“The Indonesian Red Cross is racing to help survivors but we don’t know what they’ll find there.”
The massive tremors were felt hundreds of kilometres away and there has been little word about casualties in Donggala, a region north of Palu where at least one person was reported dead in Friday’s quakes.
“We have heard nothing from Donggala and this is extremely worrying,” Gelfand said.
“There are more than 300,000 people living there. This is already a tragedy, but it could get much worse.”
Pictures supplied by the disaster agency showed a badly damaged shopping mall in Palu where at least one floor had caved in.
Video footage showed a double-arched yellow bridge had collapsed with its two metal arches twisted as cars bobbed in the water below.
An AFP reporter on the scene saw widespread damage some 50 metres inland.
A key access road had been badly damaged and was partially blocked by landslides, the disaster agency said.
Neighbouring Malaysia has offered to send help to Sulawesi, a government spokesman there told AFP, adding Malaysia “was waiting for Indonesia’s reply.”
Friday’s tremor was also felt in the far south of the island in its largest city Makassar and on neighbouring Kalimantan, Indonesia’s portion of Borneo island.
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, when mosques are especially busy.
Indonesia is one of the most disaster-prone nations on earth.
It lies on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where tectonic plates collide and many of the world’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.
Earlier this year, a series of powerful quakes hit Lombok, killing more than 550 people on the holiday island and neighbouring Sumbawa.
Indonesia has been hit by a string of other deadly quakes including a devastating 9.1 magnitude tremor that struck off the coast of Sumatra in December 2004.
That Boxing Day quake triggered a tsunami that killed 220,000 throughout the region, including 168,000 in Indonesia.