Rescuers dug through debris with their bare hands and anxious family members struggled to contact loved ones who remained unaccounted for Sunday as the official death toll from an earthquake and tsunami in eastern Indonesia soared to 832, with authorities warning that it would rise much higher.
A string of towns along the western coast of the island of Sulawesi remained cut off by washed-out roads and downed communication lines, leaving the extent of the damage and loss of life there unknown more than 48 hours after the magnitude 7.5 quake struck.
With much of the quake zone inaccessible, the relief effort has focused on Palu, a town of 380,000, where crumpled buildings and bridges were surrounded by dead bodies, some covered by blankets, others with their clothes ripped by the force of a tsunami that measured as high as 20 feet.
Indonesia’s national disaster agency said the death toll had more than doubled overnight, to 832 people, but nearly all of those were in Palu. Officials warned that the toll could reach into the thousands once relief workers reached major towns such as Donggala, with a population of around 300,000 that is normally a half-hour drive north of Palu.
“The death toll will increase but I cannot say [by] how much,” Sutopo Nugroho, the disaster agency spokesman, told The Times in Jakarta.
The disaster was already the deadliest in more than a decade in Indonesia, a vast archipelago nation of nearly 300 million people spread across 17,000 islands that straddle an earthquake-prone region known as the Pacific “Ring of Fire.”
An area of intense tectonic activity and many active volcanoes, it has seen several devastating earthquakes in recent years — the deadliest in 2004, when a magnitude 9.1 temblor unleashed a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 230,000 people, most of them in Indonesia.
The epicenter of Friday’s quake was the province of West Sulawesi, with a population of about 1.2 million people, many living in fishing towns along the coast that were hit by the tsunami.
With “catastrophic damage” in many areas, relief agencies were bracing for a large loss of life once teams could assess the effects in Donggala and other towns, said Tom Howells, program implementation director for Save the Children’s Jakarta office.
“Aid agencies and local authorities are struggling to reach several communities around Donggala…. We hold grave fears for many of the towns in this area,” Howells said.
Images on local TV and social media sites from Palu showed scenes of death and destruction: crumpled buildings and bridges surrounded by dead bodies, some covered by blankets, some with their clothes partly ripped off by the force of a tsunami that measured between five and 20 feet high.
Indonesian news media said dozens of people were trapped beneath toppled hotels and malls in Palu, an echo of scenes on the island of Lombok in August, when a series of earthquakes killed more than 460 people.
An Associated Press reporter in Palu said that rescue workers were focusing on an eight-story hotel where on Saturday voices were heard calling for help from under the rubble. Officials estimated about 50 people were inside the hotel, but the cries for help were no longer heard by Sunday afternoon, the news agency reported.
Aerial images showed a landmark mosque inundated with water, houses that had tumbled down muddy hillsides and a ship was swept ashore in Palu by the force of the waves.
Hundreds of people had been attending a festival on the beach in Palu when the quake struck. Many of them were still unaccounted for, and anguished Indonesians were struggling to make contact with family members over the phone.
Anisah Firdaus Bandu’s mother called her in tears from Palu the evening of the quake. She hasn’t heard from her since.
“My mother cried a lot, she tried to pick up my father at his office,” said Anisah, a civil servant in Jakarta, the capital.
“I really tried hard to reach them till now but I can’t.”
With roads into Palu blocked by landslides and the town’s airport damaged, getting teams of relief workers from elsewhere in Indonesia to the disaster zone was proving difficult, delaying timely assistance to survivors and the arrival of heavy equipment that could save the people trapped inside downed buildings.
Officials said they would deliver some assistance via Makassar, the biggest city on Sulawesi, an island roughly the size of Florida with a population of about 18 million. Makassar lies at the southern end of the island, a 12-hour drive from Palu.
Hundreds of bodies stuffed into yellow, black and blue body bags were piled in a hospital courtyard as relatives began the grim task of identifying loved ones.
To avoid the spread of diseases such as cholera and typhoid, disaster management officials said they would begin mass burials on Sunday, taking fingerprints and other information so that the dead could be identified at a later date.
Dozens of strong aftershocks have struck Palu, where many fearful residents were sleeping in the streets and reluctant to reenter their homes, said Rafiq Anshori, head of the Indonesian Red Cross’s disaster preparedness division. He spoke by phone from Palu, where some communications had been restored by Sunday evening.
“Many road[s], houses, other facilities are broken,” he said. “People are finding it difficult to get food, water, fuel.”
Potable water and temporary shelters were among the urgent needs in Palu, said Mario de Oliviera, emergency management director for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, which was sending teams to the affected areas.
“Many families are in urgent need of help. They have lost everything, and they are struggling,” De Oliveira said. “The most urgent needs at this time include baby and childrens’ foods, emergency tents and tarpaulins, blankets, clean and potable water, medicines, among other priorities.”
Imade Boby, a 35-year-old Jakarta resident, said Sunday afternoon that he hadn’t been able to reach his parents or other family members in Palu since the quake. By late evening, however, he managed to get through on the phone.
“Finally I found my family in Palu,” he said, “and thank God they are in good condition.”