Desperate search for survivors on remote islands at centre of shock

Click to follow
The Independent Online

As the sun set Datot Mendra was preparing to spend a last night with his wife. His eyes bloodshot from weeping, he laid down next to her still body, wrapped like so many others in a white sheet, lying open to the elements in the street in Gunung Sitoli, the main town of the Indonesian island of Nias.

As the sun set Datot Mendra was preparing to spend a last night with his wife. His eyes bloodshot from weeping, he laid down next to her still body, wrapped like so many others in a white sheet, lying open to the elements in the street in Gunung Sitoli, the main town of the Indonesian island of Nias.

Today he will bury her, and his sister and two other family members killed by the massive earthquake that struck on Monday bringing a fresh round of death and destruction to a region already shattered by the Boxing Day tsunami. By nightfall yesterday the death toll on the island stood at more than 300, while officials estimated it could climb as high as 2,000.

Even 24 hours after the quake struck, there were wildly conflicting reports of the death toll. Officials on the island confirmed that 330 bodies had been found. Indonesia's official disaster centre for Aceh and North Sumatra put it at 1,000. The Indonesian Vice-President, Jusuf Kalla, said he feared it could be as many as 2,000.

"What will I tell my children?" Mr Mendra, a restaurant owner, said. "I can't face it. My faith in Jesus is helping me through this."

The 55-year-old's wife was one of about 20 bodies draped in sheets, candles flickering at their heads, laid outside the Santa Maria church in on the predominantly Catholic island. More keep arriving.

Groups of four men approach, each holding the corner of a sheet that bears the burden of another body.

Away from the serene and terrible calm of the church, the island of 600,000 off the west coast of Sumatra was like a battle zone. Relief workers from Oxfam who reached Gunung Sitoli said the roads had collapsed from the force of the earthquake, and electricity and power were completely cut off.

"Bodies are being pulled from the rubble as I speak," said Alessandra Villas-Boas, a member of the Oxfam team. More than 20,000 people have been left without clean drinking water, she warned. Flying into Nias by helicopter, crowds of people could be seen below clawing at fallen beams and shattered walls from the night before. They were attempting, for the second time in three months, to put their battered lives back together again.

This time, thankfully, there were no bloated bodies lying side by side on the beaches.

On the nearby island of Simeulue, there were reports of at least 15 deaths but eyewitnesses fear the toll may be much higher.

The tremor did trigger a tsunami, but it was a small one and headed south into the middle of the Indian Ocean, experts said. "The orientation of the fault directed the maximum height of the tsunami into the middle of the Indian Ocean rather than toward Sri Lanka and India," said Gary Gibson at the Seismology Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia. "So in that direction, we didn't have a problem."

In Banda Aceh, the province on the Indonesian mainland hardest hit by last year's tsunami, panic-stricken residents rushed into the streets after Monday's quake.

"We went down to the street and people began to panic. Some people screamed 'Water! Water! The water is coming again'," said Yudisia Arafah, a 23-year-old government worker in the city Aceh.

Elsewhere across the Indian Ocean, beach-front roads in major resort areas, where tourist numbers are still well down on last year, were clogged with traffic as residents and holidaymakers jumped in any available transport to evacuate to higher ground.

On the tsunami-devastated Thai paradise island of Kho Phi Phi, bars emptied as word of a major earthquake spread by phone and word of mouth.

Many relief organisations were able to send teams to Nias swiftly because they were still in Banda Aceh, working on the reconstruction effort there, although they were held up by the inaccessibility of the island itself.

At the football pitch turned field hospital on Nias, dozens of bloodied patients were waiting and hoping for that relief effort to reach them. "It's so painful, it's so painful," cried Marandu Lahagus, 10, unable to stand the pain from his bloodied forehead. The pitch served as the main helicopter landing pad with the road between the airport and the city centre made impassable after a bridge collapsed in Monday night's 8.7 magnitude quake. The tremor cut off power leaving everyone to grieve in the darkness.

The concrete homes whose walls had folded in on themselves - almost certainly crushing to death anybody caught inside. A steeple had fallen from a church. Injured people lay on doors salvaged from wrecked homes, waiting and hoping that a relief agency helicopter would airlift them to a hospital on Sumatra.

"Four people here might not make it through the night!" yelled one of the few Western aid workers to arrive in the town yesterday. "Do you have space on a chopper?" Elsewhere, two boys sat next to their wounded mother and a man stood next to his wife, holding the bag for her intravenous drip.

While the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed more than 126,000 in nearby Aceh province, that catastrophe left this church-studded seaside town comparatively unscathed. This time there was no lucky escape. The late-night tremor destroyed thousands of homes, shops and government buildings and sent its terrified residents fleeing to the hills fearing killer waves.

There is very little heavy machinery with which to pick through the wreckage of homes to hunt for survivors. Instead, families frantically hunting for loved ones used crowbars and their hands to lift chunks of concrete amid tangles of electricity cables downed by the quake.

People whose homes survived the quake do not trust them now, fearing that one of the many strong aftershocks that shook Nias island yesterday could finally topple the walls. Instead, survivors huddled around candles in the streets. There is little food or water and most of the town's shops are little more than rubble.

Deli Iname sat patiently waiting next to her nine-year-old daughter. The girl's face was swollen and her legs draped in a bloody sarong. "She's so young; why is her life in danger?" Iname asks. "She stood no chance."



Megaphones, radio stations, mobile telephones and temple bells were used to warn of a new tsunami threat after a tremor was felt at 9.39pm local time. There is no official tsunami warning system in place.

There were huge traffic jams in southern coastal regions such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh after residents were advised to head for high ground. By dawn yesterday, the exodus had ceased and thousands were returning home to their villages.


Government news bulletins broadcast warnings until 2:30am local time. But Smith Thammasaroj, the former head of Thailand's meteorological department, said: "[The warning system] was very slow. It was much better than last time, but it wasn't perfect. We weren't ready. The warning system isn't good yet. It's not finished yet."


Sri Lankans, 1,600km from the epicentre, had no tremors but stayed on alert for hours. Two people were reportedly killed in frantic evacuation scenes in Tamil areas where rebels oversaw emergency procedures.


The quake's epicentre was 4,000km away. But after tsunami warnings on television, many communities evacuated inland. However, officials called off the alert within five hours


Simeulue, which neighbours Nias, took the brunt of the earthquake with tremors of up to three minutes and at least 25 deaths. Within minutes, a 3m wave destroyed the main hospital and caused major damage. Aftershocks continued but no more tsunamis were detected.


The 8.7 magnitude tremor struck Nias at 11.15pm local time, six minutes after the epicentre. It levelled about 80 per cent of the structures still standing after the Boxing Day tsunami. Rescuers have found 330 bodies, and are hunting for hundreds more feared dead.


Tremors struck just after 1am local time. Thousands of residents of the country's many skyscrapers waited in their pyjamas until the all-clear was issued. Mosques provided shelter in courtyards, and a tsunami watch continued for several hours


1: CHILE, 22 May, 1960

Magnitude: 9.5 on Richter scale

Triggered giant waves and volcanic eruptions; 5,000 people killed.

2: ALASKA, 28 March, 1964

Magnitude: 9.2

The earthquake and ensuing tsunami claimed 125 lives.

3: ALASKA, 9 March, 1957

Magnitude: 9.1

A volcano dormant for 200 years erupted; tsunami carried to Hawaii.

4: INDONESIA, 26 Dec, 2004

Magnitude 9.0

Striking off Aceh, Sumatra, tsunami left nearly 300,000 dead or missing across south Asia and east Africa.

5: RUSSIA, 4 Nov, 1952

Magnitude 9.0

Tsunami hit the Hawaiian islands. No one was killed.

6: ECUADOR, 31 Jan, 1906

Magnitude 8.8

Striking near the coast of Ecuador and Colombia, tsunami killed up to 1,000.

7: INDONESIA, 28 March, 2005

Magnitude 8.7

See main story

8: ALASKA, 4 Feb, 1965

Magnitude 8.7

Generated a tsunami of about 10.7 metres.

9: TIBET/INDIA, 15 Aug, 1950

Magnitude 8.6

Two thousand buildings, destroyed, 1,500 dead.

10: RUSSIA, 3 Feb, 1923

Magnitude 8.5

Struck in the Kamchatka peninsula.

Reuters/US Geological Survey