Rescuers searching islands ravaged by a tsunami off western Indonesia fear the death toll of more than 330 is likely to climb because hundreds of missing people may have been swept away, an official said Thursday.
Elsewhere in Indonesia, villagers held a mass burial for some of the 33 people killed when one the country’s most volatile volcanos erupted.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was to meet Thursday with survivors of the twin catastrophes, which struck within 24 hours in different corners of the seismically charged region, severely testing his disaster-prone nation’s emergency response network.
Officials say a multimillion dollar warning system installed after the monster 2004 quake and tsunami broke down one month ago because it was not being properly maintained.
In the tsunami-ravaged Mentawai islands, search and rescue teams – kept away for days because of stormy seas and bad weather – found roads and beaches with swollen corpses lying on them, according to Harmensyah, head of the West Sumatra provincial disaster management center.
Some wore face masks as they wrapped corpses in black body bags. Huge swaths of land were underwater and houses lay crumpled with tires and slabs of concrete piled up on the surrounding sand.
Harmensyah said the teams were losing hope of finding the more than 370 people still missing since the wall of water, created by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, crashed into the islands on Monday.
“They believe many, many of the bodies were swept to sea,” he said.
On Thursday, survivors crowded into a makeshift medical center in the village of Sikakap on Pagai Utara. More than 100 people – some still weeping for loved ones lost to the 10-foot (3-meter) wave – lay on straw mats or sat on the floor, waiting for medics to treat injuries including broken limbs and cuts.
At least 311 people died as the tsunami washed away hundreds of wooden and bamboo homes in 20 villages, displacing more than 20,000 people, said Ade Edward, a government disaster official.
About 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) to the east in central Java, the Mount Merapi volcano was mostly quiet but still a threat after Tuesday’s eruption that sent searing ash clouds into the air, killing at least 33 people and injuring 17, said Agustinus, a doctor at the local health department who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name.
Among the dead was a revered elder who had refused to leave his ceremonial post as caretaker of the mountain’s spirits.
Dealing with disaster
The United States and several of Indonesia’s neighbours have pledged help for a nation which often finds itself battling calamity, although Jakarta said it did not see a need for foreign assistance.
Barack Obama, the US president, lived in Indonesia as a boy and is due to return there on an Asian tour next month. Obama voiced his sadness over the deaths and pledged US help.
The Vatican also made appeals for international aid.
Meanwhile, Indonesian vice-president Boediono visited Munte Baru-Baru village, the hardest hit village on Pagai Island, where 88 bodies have been recovered.
Indonesia straddles a region where the meeting of continental plates causes high seismic activity. It has the world’s largest number of active volcanoes and is shaken by thousands of earthquakes every year.
A 7.6-magnitude earthquake last year in Padang killed about 1,100 people, triggered by a 9.3-magnitude quake along the same fault line that caused the 2004 Asian tsunami.
The latest data from the West Sumatra Provincial Board for Disaster Mitigation (BPBD) showed that 179 houses, 4 schools and 10 bridges were heavily destructed in Mentawai islands due to a tsunami that slammed the areas on Monday.
Five worship houses, two resort areas and 8 kilometer roads were also torn by the wave, the data said.
As of Thursday afternoon, the data confirmed that the death toll in Mentawai islands reached 311, with 379 people missing. The data also said that 261 people were severely injured.
The 7.2-magnitude quake struck the floor of the sea close to the islands and spawned a 3 meter-high wave Monday night, displacing more than 4,000 families.