Mahmud Arif appeared dazed as he recalled the horrifying scene after a massive earthquake struck Indonesia’s Sulawesi island on Friday and caused the soil in his neighborhood to erupt into torrents of mud.
Arif was at work in Petobo village when the massive temblor churned the soil and unleashed horror.
“I rushed home, but when I got here, the whole housing complex just disappeared,” he told BenarNews. “I couldn’t believe it, but it’s true.”
Arif witnessed a phenomenon that seismologists describe as soil liquefaction, when violent shaking turns otherwise solid soil to behave temporarily as viscous liquid, swallowing homes and buildings.
“Houses here were just sucked into the mud,” he said Wednesday. “Some houses disappeared, others moved hundreds of meters away.”
Officials estimate that more than 500 people were buried after entire houses were wiped clear when the magnitude 7.4 quake obliterated Petobo, one of the villages that suffered the most destruction from the temblor that also spawned a tsunami and killed at least 1,400 people on the island.
The tsunami that smashed coastal villages did not strike Petobo, which was inland. But liquefaction created massive rifts in the earth in the village, bringing down power lines and flipping cars in some areas where the ground rose several feet.
In Balaroa village, about 13 km (8 miles) from Petobo, a neighborhood looks as if it had been bombed – heavily.
“Here everything is destroyed,” Warno Ishak, a 46-year-old resident of a housing complex, told BenarNews. “No house is intact after the earthquake.”
Aerial photographs showed the housing complex leveled.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency, told reporters in Jakarta that there was no estimate on how many people were buried in Balaroa and Petobo, both in the outskirts of the devastated city of Palu.
But he said more than 1,700 houses in Balaroa were destroyed or swallowed by the mud.
“Victim recovery has been difficult there,” Sutopo said.
The death toll from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck the province rose to 1,407 on Wednesday, he said, adding that 519 bodies had been buried.
Most of the casualties recorded were in the provincial capital Palu, while the scale of the disaster in other affected areas, such as Donggala and Sigi, remained unclear.
More than 2,550 were hospitalized with serious injuries and 113 remained missing, Sutopo said.
“We expect the figures will continue to increase,” he said.
More than 70,000 people have been displaced and nearly 66,000 houses were damaged.
At Palu’s Mutiara airport, dozens of injured people were awaiting evacuation to the city of Makassar in South Sulawesi province. Many were lying in army camp beds and some wore leg and arm casts.
Hospitals in Palu are struggling to cope with the number casualties amid a lack of electricity and fuel.
“They need treatment but because there’s still no electricity, they can’t be treated in Palu,” said Bambang Sadewo, a military officer supervising the evacuation.
About 15 aircraft were scheduled to carry the injured on Wednesday.
The ground ‘moved like a blender,’ survivor says
Rifki, one of the patients awaiting evacuation, said he and his wife had been severely injured in the quake.
“The ground below us suddenly moved like a blender and crushed our feet,” he told local news channel Metro TV. ”There’s no way we can get treatment here. There are no facilities or drugs. We have been given only painkillers.”
By noon Wednesday, the grim task of pulling bodies from the rubble continued.
Rescuers said they had found 10 bodies under the ruins of a collapsed eight-story hotel, Metro TV reported.
Aid has begun to arrive, however the pace remained slow because of damaged infrastructure.
Longki Djanggola, governor of Central Sulawesi, said “fulfilling the needs of the people is paramount.”
“Food supplies, rescue teams, heavy machinery have come gradually, and we’re coordinating with the central government,” he said.
But desperation is growing among those who have not received aid, such as the villagers in Donggala, the area closest to the earthquake’s epicenter.
“Don’t just pay attention to Palu. We need help too,” Sukri, a resident of the Wani II village in Donggala, told BenarNews on Tuesday.
News footage showed survivors emptying shops of food and water in Sulawesi, even as Indonesian soldiers have been ordered to fire on looters, a colonel told AFP news service.
Foreign governments pledge assistance
On Tuesday, senior security minister Wiranto said aid was being sent by air, land and sea.
He said 26 countries have offered assistance after President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo authorized the acceptance of international aid.
U.S. President Donald Trump offered to provide immediate assistance and pledged to work with the government of Indonesia, according to a White House statement released Tuesday.
Trump spoke with Widodo, the statement said, adding the American leader shared his condolences.
“He offered his support to the victims and their families and acknowledged the Indonesian government’s leadership in response to the crisis,” it said.
At least 150 people remain unaccounted for and believed to be beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings, AP quoted officials as saying.
Almost 200,000 people need urgent help according to the United Nations.
The Geneva-based International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) tweeted Wednesday that its team members were first to reach Petobo village.
“Volunteers have recovered 14 bodies and are battling debris and thick mud to find survivors,” IFRC said. It also posted its drone video from Petobo showing hundreds of homes buried in mud.
At a collapsed church in Sigi Biromaru district, south of Palu city, rescuers described struggling through thick mud to retrieve the bodies of more than 30 children from a bible study group, IFRC spokesman Matthew Cochrane said in a statement issued Tuesday.
“It took them 1 ½ hours to carry each of the bodies out to nearby ambulances, having to wade through incredibly deep mud,” Cochrane said.
‘We won’t accept that’
Local media quoted Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla saying the government would reject any assistance that involved foreign military personnel.
“We won’t accept that. They (the United States) wanted to send a hospital ship. Our hospital ship is enough,” Kalla said, according to Kompas.com.
Australia will send more than 50 medical professionals to Central Sulawesi as part of an AU$5 million (U.S. $3.6 million) aid package, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.
“We will be working very closely with the Indonesian government to make sure that the support we are providing is highly targeted” she said.
Australia earlier said it had provided AU$500,000 (U.S. $360,000) through the Indonesian Red Cross, while the United States announced on Monday that it had released $100,000 in initial disaster assistance.
Germany said it was providing 1.5 million euros (U.S. $1.7 million) in emergency aid for the disaster region.
Elsewhere on Sulawesi island, the Mount Soputan volcano erupted on Wednesday, sending ash almost 20,000 feet (about 3.7 miles) into the sky, the disaster management agency said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties, it said.
The alert level for the volcano remained at one level below normal but “residents should be wary of the threat of mudflows, which can happen after an eruption,” agency spokesman Sutopo said.
The volcano lies about 900 km (562 miles) away from the area affected by the earthquake and tsunami. There was no evidence that the quake and volcanic eruption were linked, a geophysicist told reporters.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, visiting the quake-hit zone for a second time on Wednesday, praised the emergency relief effort.
Jokowi said about 40 percent of electricity in Palu had been restored and promised that more fuel would be distributed.
“All post-disaster work, including aid delivery and victim recovery, has been going well,” he said. “God willing, the government is handling everything with speed."