Hard-hit Indonesian city burying its dead as toll tops 840

Vastavam web: Brightly coloured body bags were placed side-by-side in a freshly dug mass grave Monday, as a hard-hit Indonesian city began burying its dead from the devastating earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 840 people and left thousands homeless. The death toll, largely from the city of Palu, is expected to keep rising as areas cut off by the damage are reached. The magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck at dusk Friday and generated a tsunami said to have been as high as 6 meters (20 feet) in places. The trench dug in Palu was 10 metres by 100 metres (33 feet by 330 feet) and can be enlarged if needed, said Willem Rampangilei, chief of Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency.

“This must be done as soon as possible for health and religious reasons,” he said. Indonesia is majority Muslim, and religious custom calls for burials soon after death, typically within one day. Video footage showed residents walking from body bag to body bag, opening the tops to check if they could identify faces.

Around midday, teams of workers, their mouths covered by masks, carried 18 bodies and laid them in the trench. A backhoe waited to push soil on top of the dead. More burials were expected to follow. Military and commercial aircraft were delivering some aid and supplies. But there was a need for heavy equipment to reach possible survivors buried in collapsed buildings, including an eight-story hotel in Palu where voices had been heard in the rubble.

“We have not eaten for three days!” one woman yelled. “We just want to be safe!” Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo authorised the acceptance of international help, said disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, adding that generators, heavy equipment and tents were among the items needed. He said the European Union and 10 countries have offered assistance, including the United States, Australia and China. “We will send food today, as much as possible with several aircraft,” Widodo told reporters in the capital, Jakarta, adding that a supply of fuel was also set to arrive. “In Petobo, it is estimated that there are still hundreds of victims buried in mud material,” Nugroho said.

Villagers who pulled out loved ones alive and dead over the weekend expressed frustration that it took rescue teams until Monday to reach Petobo. Edi Setiawan, 32, said he and fellow villagers were able to rescue five children and four adults, including a pregnant woman. However, his sister and father were not among them. “My sister was found embracing her father,” he said. “My mother was able to survive after struggling against the mud and being rescued by villagers.”

But there were cases of survivors still being pulled from the rubble in different locations, including a 25-year-old woman found alive Sunday evening in the ruins of the Roa-Roa Hotel, according to the National Search and Rescue Agency, which released photos of her lying on a stretcher covered with a blanket.

Novry Wullur, an officer from Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, said Nurul Istiharah, 15, managed to survive after being trapped inside her house after it collapsed. Her mother and niece were dead beside her, and water had left her submerged up to her neck and in danger of drowning. Her legs were finally freed and she was pulled out of the rubble. She was being treated for hypothermia at a hospital. The regencies of Donggala, Sigi and Parigi Moutong with a combined population of 1.2 million had yet to be fully assessed. Nearly 50,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Palu alone, Nugroho said. He said 114 foreigners were in Palu and Donggala during the disaster. All were accounted for except one Belgian, one South Korean and six French.