Dozens of students found dead as Sulawesi death toll rises to 1,234

Published October 2, 2018, 1:25 PM

by AJ Siytangco

By Agence France-Presse

PALU/JAKARTA, Indonesia (AFP) – The bodies of dozens of students have been pulled from their landslide-swamped church in Sulawesi, officials said Tuesday, as an international effort to help nearly 200,000 increasingly desperate Indonesian quake-tsunami victims ground into gear.

NATURE’S POWER– The tsunami stranded this ship on shore in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi, in this photograph taken by Antara Foto. (Reuters/ MANILA BULLETIN)
NATURE’S POWER– The tsunami stranded this ship on shore in Wani, Donggala, Central Sulawesi, in this photograph taken by Antara Foto. (Reuters/ MANILA BULLETIN)

The discovery adds to the already-high death toll from Friday’s disaster, when a powerful earthquake triggered a tsunami that smashed into the seaside city of Palu.

SutopoPurwoNugroho, the national disaster agency spokesman said the death toll has risen to 1,234 from 844.

Survivors are battling thirst and hunger, with food and clean water in short supply, and local hospitals are overwhelmed by the number of injured.

Some survivors clambered through detritus hunting for anything salvageable, some crowded around daisy-chained power strips at the few buildings that still have power. Others queued for water, cash or petrol being brought in via armed police convoy.

“The government, the President have come here, but what we really need is food and water,” Burhanuddin Aid Masse, 48, told AFP.

Rescue efforts have been hampered by a lack of heavy machinery, severed transport links, the scale of the damage, and the Indonesian government’s reluctance to accept foreign help.

Two new quakes

Meanwhile as rescuers dug for survivors in Palu, two quakes struck in quick succession off the southern coast of Indonesia’s Sumba island Tuesday morning, sending startled people into the streets for safety.

A shallow and moderately strong 5.9 quake struck at 2359 GMT, around 40 kilometers (25 miles) off Sumba, an island of some 750,000 people, the United States Geological Survey said.

It was followed up some 15 minutes later by a stronger 6.0 magnitude quake in the same area at a depth of 30 kilometers.

There were no immediate reports of serious damage.

“We felt four shakes. People were panicking when the first quake happened and ran out of the hotel, about 40 of our guests,” DefisRinaldi, a worker at the Padadita Beach Hotel told AFP by telephone.

“It was only a few seconds and the geophysics agency didn’t issue a warning, everything is back to normal now,” he said.

Sumba lies some 1,600 kilometers south of Sulawesi island.

34 bodies

At a church in central Sulawesi that had been hit by a landslide, the Red Cross made a grim discovery.

“A total of 34 bodies were found by the team,” Indonesia Red Cross spokeswoman AuliaArriani told AFP, adding that 86 students had initially been reported missing from a Bible camp at the Jonooge Church Training Centre.

Arriani said rescuers faced an arduous trek to reach the mudslide and retrieve the victims.

“The most challenging problem is travelling in the mud as much as 1.5 hours by foot while carrying the bodies to an ambulance,” she said.

Mountainous SigiBiromaru district is one of those more remote regions, southeast of Palu city.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation but there are small pockets of religious minorities, including Christians, across the archipelago of 260 million people.


It was two agonising days of searches through makeshift morgues and hospitals before Azwan found his wife Dewi alive and well after she was swept away in the tsunami that crashed into thecity of Palu.

Azwanstruggled to keep his emotions in check, tears welling up behind his glasses.

“I was so happy, so emotional — thank god I could see her again,” Azwan, who like many Indonesians go by one name,told AFP.

His is a rare story of hope, in a place where the sense of despair, grief and loss hangs thick.

Dewi was registering guests for a festival at a beachside hotel when the tremor sent a jolt through the ground.

Soon a wall of water was rushing at her.

“A wave came and hit me hard. When I regained consciousness, suddenly I was on the street in front of the hotel. I remember hearing people shouting ‘Tsunami! Tsunami!’,” she told AFP.

Her clothes ripped and torn, she wandered through the debris-littered streets until she found an evacuation post where she stayed overnight.

“No food, no water,” she recalled. “We were told to wait until it was safe, while the aftershocks kept coming.”

On the other side of the city her husband, Azwan, was stricken with worry having survived the quake with their young daughter but without news of his wife.

After night fell, he began the grim task that would consume him for close to 48 hours: Checking patients and body bags at the city’s overrun medical centres.

“When I couldn’t find my wife in any of the bags I went back to the hospital, the police hospital, and checked the morgue,” he said.

“There were a massive amount of dead bodies there. It was so messy — on the terrace, inside, on top of each other.”

On Sunday, just as he was beginning to accept “God’s way”, his wife appeared, injured and limping towards the family home.

“When she got off the motorbike — it was euphoria,” he said.

“Everyone was crying. Our relatives broke into tears, they came to hug her.”

Dewi thanked God she was given “another chance” but was still struggling to come to grips with the ordeal.

“Even now I can’t believe I’m here alive,” she said.

“I’m still traumatized, especially because my sibling has not yet been found.”

Help needed

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned Monday that there were 191,000 people in urgent need of help after the quake-tsunami, among them 46,000 children and 14,000 elderly — many in areas that aren’t the focus of government recovery efforts.

The dead — many yet uncounted, their bodies still trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings — are also a source of concern for authorities.

In Indonesia’s hot, equatorial climate, bodies quickly begin to rot and provide a breeding ground for deadly diseases.

Around 18 countries and scores of non-governmental aid groups have offered to help in the four days since the quake and tsunami that killed hundreds, but until now have not been able to.

Many in the humanitarian sector have privately expressed frustration about sitting on the sidelines as residents of Sulawesi turn to looting for water, food or petrol and many trapped in the rubble cannot be freed for lack of heavy machinery.

Since the quake and tsunami on Friday the Indonesian military has taken a lead role, flying in some aid and evacuating residents, but also placing restrictions on foreigners flying directly into the disaster zone.

It is a rescue and recovery role that the military has increasingly embraced since 2010, when floods, a volcanic eruption and a tsunami hit the country in short order, according to Evan Laksmana, a military expert who has written on the issue.

Wiranto, the army general-turned-minister said it was important now that aid comes quickly and is tailored to need.

“What we need now is first, air transport assistance. Electricity is dead, fuel is scarce, communication is dead. Roads are damaged.”