AT LEAST 529 people were killed in a powerful earthquake that struck the Indonesian island of Sumatra on Wednesday, the Indonesian government said yesterday, but the final death toll is likely to be in the thousands.
A second earthquake yesterday morning sparked panic across the region, but no casualties were reported.
Rescuers struggled yesterday to find survivors in the rubble of hundreds of collapsed buildings in the city of Padang, the capital of West Sumatra province.
More than 400 people have been seriously injured.
The 7.6-magnitude quake struck close to Padang, bringing down hospitals, schools and shopping malls, cutting power lines and triggering landslides. The social affairs ministry yesterday gave the latest confirmed death toll of 529, but Rustam Pakaya, head of the health ministry’s disaster centre in Jakarta, said: “Our prediction is that thousands have died.” A second quake of 6.8 struck close to Padang at 8.52am local time (11.52am PNG time) yesterday but there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.
The first earthquake struck at 5.16pm local time (8.16pm PNG time) on Wednesday, some 85km under the sea, north-west of Padang, the US Geological Survey said.
One of the worst disasters appeared to be the collapse of a school in Padang.
One mother, Andriana, told AFP news agency she had been at the school since the first quake occurred, hoping for news of her 14-year-old daughter.
“I haven’t been home yet and keep praying to God my daughter is alive.”
Police said nine children had been found alive but that eight bodies had also been pulled from the rubble so far.
David Lange, a doctor with Surfaid International, told the BBC one of the hospitals was “completely destroyed” and medical workers were struggling to cope.
“They are trying to operate in the parking lot, in a tent, in the mud,” he said.
Bob McKerrow, Red Cross head of operations in Indonesia, told the BBC it had more than 400 personnel on the ground, including 50 doctors flown in yesterday morning.
“But it’s just such a vast area to be working in with such bad infrastructure,” he said.
“I mean the roads and bridges have all been damaged, so (there is) a challenge ahead of us.”
The quake brought down telephone lines, severely affecting communications with the region and making it difficult to assess the scale of the damage.
Health ministry teams and Indonesian soldiers have arrived in Padang to aid the search for survivors.
A shortage of heavy machinery remains a problem.
Food, medicine and body bags have begun to arrive.
Tents and blankets were also on their way to help the homeless, the health ministry said.
Padang’s main hospital received a stream of ambulances bringing in victims.
Relatives searched through lists of names pinned on windows.
Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono flew to Padang yesterday.
“Let’s not underestimate (the disaster),” he said as he left Jakarta.
“Let’s be prepared for the worst.
“We will do everything we can to help the victims.”
Witnesses to the first quake said residents ran out of buildings in Padang – which has a population of 900,000 – and surrounding cities.
An American in Padang, Greg Hunt, told Reuters this was the worst earthquake he had experienced.
“It’s getting nasty in town. It’s chaos. There’s no fuel, people are looting.
“It’s getting worse because people have no food, no money,” Mr Hunt added.
“There’s thousands trying to leave town, the roads are blocked.”
Australia has offered to send emergency assistance to Indonesia if needed.
“They are very close friends and neighbours.
“They know that we are here and available to help.
“They just have to ask,” parliamentary secretary for international development assistance, Bob McMullan, said.
Indonesian officials have said the quake was one of the biggest in Indonesia in recent years and could have been more powerful than the 2006 Yogyakarta quake that killed more than 5,000 people.
Wednesday’s quake was along the same fault line that spawned the 2004 Asian tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen countries.
That quake struck roughly 600km northwest of Padang.
Geologists have long warned that Padang could one day be completely destroyed by an earthquake because of its location.
Western Sumatra is a mainly rural area with dense tropical forest and several national parks.
Many of its beaches are popular with surfers.
The earthquake struck nearly 12 hours after a powerful quake in the South Pacific that triggered a devastating tsunami but experts said the two events were unrelated.
“They were 10,000km apart,” New Zealand seismologist Bill Fry told AFP news agency.
“You can get quakes that are close temporally and spatially as one transfers stress to another place against the fault, but that’s not possible this far apart.”