Indonesians step up search for quake victims to beat deadline as toll exceeds 2,000

An excavator removes a damaged car next to the debris of a mosque damaged by an earthquake in the Balaroa neighbourhood in Palu, Central Sulawesi
PHOTO: REUTERS

PALU, Indonesia (Reuters) - Rescue workers in Indonesia stepped up their search for victims of an earthquake and tsunami on Tuesday, hoping to find as many bodies as they can before this week's deadline for their work to halt, as the official death toll rose to 2,010.

The national disaster mitigation agency has called off the search from Thursday, citing concern about the spread of disease. Debris would be cleared and areas where bodies lie would eventually be turned into parks, sports venues and memorials.

Perhaps as many as 5,000 victims of the 7.5 magnitude quake and tsunami on Sept. 28 have yet to be found, most of them entombed in flows of mud flows that surged from the ground when the quake agitated the soil into a liquid mire.

Most of the bodies have been found in the seaside city of Palu, on the west coast of Sulawesi island, 1,500 km (930 miles) northeast of the capital, Jakarta.

More than 10,000 rescue workers are scouring expanses of debris, especially in three areas obliterated by soil liquefaction in the south of the small city.

"We're not sure what will happen afterwards, so we're trying to work as fast as possible," said rescue worker Ahmad Amin, 29, referring to the deadline, as he took a break in the badly hit Balaroa neighborhood.

At least nine excavators were working through the rubble of Balaroa on Tuesday, picking their way through smashed buildings and pummeled vehicles. At least a dozen bodies were recovered, a Reuters photographer said.

"There are so many children still missing, we want to find them quickly," said Amin, who is from Balaroa and has relatives unaccounted for. "It doesn't matter if it's my family or not, the important thing is that we find as many as we can."

The state disaster mitigation agency said the search was being stepped up and focused more intensely on areas where many people are believed to be buried.

The decision to end the search has angered some relatives of the missing but taxi driver Rudy Rahman, 40, said he had to accept it.

"As long as they keep searching, I will be here every day looking for my son," said Rahman, who said he had lost three sons in the disaster. The bodies of two were found, the youngest is missing.

An excavator removes a damaged car next to the debris of a mosque damaged by an earthquake in the Balaroa neighbourhood in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, October 8. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

"This is the only thing I can do, otherwise I would go insane," he said, choking back tears. "If they stop, what can I do? There are four meters of soil here. I couldn't do it on my own."

'POLITICAL SENSITIVITIES'

While Indonesian workers searched, the disaster agency ordered independent foreign aid workers to leave the quake zone.

Indonesia has traditionally been reluctant to be seen as relying on outside help to cope with disasters, and the government shunned foreign aid this year when earthquakes struck the island of Lombok.

But it has accepted help from abroad to cope with the Sulawesi disaster.

The disaster agency, in a notice posted on Twitter, set the rules out for foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs), saying they were not allowed to "go directly to the field" and could only work with "local partners".

"Foreign citizens who are working with foreign NGOs are not allowed to conduct any activity on the sites," it said, adding that foreign NGOs with people deployed should withdraw them immediately.

A few foreign aid workers have been in the disaster zone, including a team from the group Pompiers Humanitaires Francais that searched for survivors, but they have spoken of difficulties in getting entry permits and authorisation.

Scores killed in Indonesia quake, tsunami

  • Earthquake survivors in Palu, Central Sulawesi, crowd Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport in Palu in a desperate attempt to leave the devastated area on Monday.
  • A combination of satellite images shows Palu, Indonesia on September 22, 2018 (L) and on October 1, 2018.
  • A combination of satellite images shows Palu, Indonesia on September 22, 2018 (L) and on October 1, 2018.
  • In the wake of mass destruction caused by a 7.4-magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, survivors in Palu and Donggala in Central Sulawesi have been scrambling to salvage food supplies and other items, as aid from the central government began to trickle into the region.
  • An aerial view of an area devestated by an earthquake in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 1, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.
  • Local residents affected by the earthquake and tsunami retrieve gasoline at a gas station in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.
  • This handout from Indonesia's National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB) taken on September 29, 2018 shows an aerial view of Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28.
  • Scores of people were killed when a powerful quake and tsunami struck central Indonesia, an AFP photographer at the scene said on Saturday (Sept 29), as rescuers scrambled to reach the stricken region.
  • Photographs from Palu, home to around 350,000 on the coast of Sulawesi island, showed partially covered bodies on the ground near the shore, the morning after tsunami waves as high as 1.5 metres slammed into the city.
  • A satellite image shows Palu, Indonesia on October 1, 2018.
  • The tsunami was triggered by a strong quake that brought down several buildings and sent locals fleeing their homes for higher ground as a churning wall of water crashed into Palu.
  • People living hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre reported feeling the massive shake, hours after a smaller jolt killed at least one person in the same part of the South-east Asian archipelago.
  • The quake hit just off central Sulawesi at a depth of 10 kilometres just before 6pm local time, the US Geological Survey said. Such shallow quakes tend to be more destructive.
  • Search and rescue teams have been dispatched to hard-hit areas
  • A 10-storey hotel in Palu in Indonesia's Central Sulawesi collapsed following a strong earthquake in the area.
  • As shattered survivors scoured make-shift 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.
  • 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.
  • Others have centred their search around open-air morgues, where the dead lay in the baking sun - waiting to be claimed, waiting to be named.
  • Still, as dire as the situation in Palu was, it was at least clear. In outlying areas, the fate of thousands is still unknown.
  • 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.

"This is the first time we encountered such difficulty in actually getting to do our work," team leader Arnaud Allibert told Reuters, adding they were leaving on Wednesday as their help was no longer needed.

Indonesian governments are wary of being too open to outside help because they could face criticism from political opponents and there is particular resistance to the presence of foreign military personnel, as it could be seen as an infringement of sovereignty.

"There are political sensitivities, especially with an election coming up, and sovereignty is another issue," said Keith Loveard, a senior analyst with advisory and risk firm Concord Consulting, referring to polls due next year.

Sulawesi is one of Indonesia's five main islands. The archipelago sees frequent earthquakes and occasional tsunami.

In 2004, a quake off Sumatra island triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Foreign governments and groups played a big role in aid efforts in 2004.

More about

INDONESIA Earthquakes
Purchase this article for republication.

SERVICES