Indonesia tsunami: Air traffic controller 'gave his life so plane could take off'

Anthonius Gunawan Agung stayed behind to make sure a passenger plane took off safely as 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck the country

Chiara Giordano
Sunday 30 September 2018 11:20
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Tsunami hits Indonesian city of Palu after powerful earthquake

An air traffic controller was hailed a hero after he sacrificed his own life to ensure a passenger plane carrying dozens of people safely took off during an earthquake in Indonesia.

As his colleagues fled the Mutiara SIS Al-Jufrie airport, near Palu, in Central Sulawesi, 21-year-old Anthonius Gunawan Agung held his ground as the 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck.

He had just cleared Batik Air flight 6231 for takeoff as the ground started to shake, but instead of running for safety he waited until the plane was airborne before finally leaving the air traffic control tower.

Trapped as he attempted to flee, Mr Agung was forced to jump from the fourth storey of the tower as the tremors grew stronger.

He suffered a broken leg and internal injuries and although he was taken to hospital, he died while waiting for a helicopter to take him to a different hospital for specialist care.

Air Navigation Indonesia spokesman Yohannes Sirait said Mr Agung’ decision to stay behind cost him his life, but he may have saved everyone on board the plane as the city was later ravaged by a tsunami.

Mr Agung, who would have turned 22 on 24 October, had his rank increased by two levels in recognition of his “extraordinary dedication”.

Soldiers carried his body as it was transported for burial.

Following the earthquake, a 10-foot tsunami swept away buildings and killed at least several hundred people on the central Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Soldiers carry the body of Anthonius Gunawan Agung, a 21-year-old air traffic controller who died after staying behind to make sure a passenger plane took off safely when a 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit the city of Palu, in Indonesia

Disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said 384 people were killed in the city of Palu alone. Many remain missing.

The nearby city of Donggala and the town of Mamuju were also ravaged but had not yet been reached by aid on Saturday due to damaged roads and disrupted telecommunications.

Mr Nugroho said “tens to hundreds” of people were taking part in a beach festival in Palu when the tsunami struck at dusk on Friday. Their fate was unknown.

In some places, the water rose as high as six metres (20 feet).

Palu, which is home to more than 380,000 people, was strewn with debris from collapsed buildings.

A mosque heavily damaged by the quake was half submerged and a shopping centre was reduced to a crumpled hulk.

A shopping centre heavily damaged following an earthquake in Palu, central Sulawesi, Indonesia 28 September, 2018

A large bridge with yellow arches had collapsed. Bodies lay partially covered by tarpaulins and a man carried a dead child through the wreckage.

The city is built around a narrow bay that apparently magnified the force of the tsunami waters as they raced into the tight inlet.

Communications with the area were difficult because power and telecommunications were cut, hampering search and rescue efforts

Mr Nugroho said: “We hope there will be international satellites crossing over Indonesia that can capture images and provide them to us so we can use the images to prepare humanitarian aid.”

Indonesia has more than 17,000 islands and is home to 260 million people.

Residents make their way along a street full of debris after an earthquake and tsunami hit Palu, on Sulawesi (AFP/Getty )

Roads and infrastructure are poor in many areas, making access difficult in the best of conditions.

The disaster agency has said that essential aircraft can land at Palu’s airport, although AirNav, which oversees aircraft navigation, said the runway was cracked and the control tower damaged.

More than half of the 560 inmates in a Palu prison fled after its walls collapsed during the quake, according to its warden Adhi Yan Ricoh.

”It was very hard for the security guards to stop the inmates from running away as they were so panicked and had to save themselves too,” he told state news agency Antara.

The warden said there was no immediate plan to search for the inmates because the prison staff and police were consumed by the search and rescue effort.

Indonesia is frequently hit by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis because of its location on the “Ring of Fire” – an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.

In December 2004, a massive 9.1- magnitude earthquake off Sumatra Island in western Indonesia triggered a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.

Associated Press contributed to this report

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