THE lives of many villagers living at the epicentre of the devastating earthquake that struck Indonesia’s Sulawesi island were spared because they had been terrified by a smaller one that hit three hours earlier.
A coastal strip dotted with villages north of the devastated city of Palu was cut off for nearly a week by landslides blocking its road link after the major 7.5 magnitude quake struck late afternoon on September 28.
But the way is now open and aid is starting to trickle into the area that rescue workers feared had been obliterated.
While destruction is extensive, with many houses destroyed, villagers said on Saturday countless lives were saved by a 6.1 magnitude quake that struck about 20km south about three hours earlier.
The official death toll from the bigger quake and the tsunami it triggered stands at 1649 but it will certainly rise.
Most of the dead have been found in Palu. Figures for more remote areas, some only just reconnected to the outside world by road, are only trickling in.
“Luckily most people were already outside,” said Lende Tovea village chief Rahman Lakuaci.
“Everyone ran outside when the first quake happened and few people were brave enough to go back in.”
Lakuaci estimated dozens of people had been killed in the area.
The city of Palu suffered heavy casualties, with hotels, malls and countless houses destroyed in the quake and by a tsunami that scoured the city’s oceanfront.
The quake brought down power lines and communications networks and more than half the houses in Sirenja district were destroyed. Those left standing were so battered they were “not fit for use”, Lakuaci said.
Most would have to torn down and rebuilt, he said.
People have survived the past week by searching for food in fields and orchards and scavenging in the forested hills.
MORE THAN 1500 KILLED
A team of French rescue experts has begun hunting through a huge expanse of debris on the outskirts of Palu, looking for body parts of earthquake victims sticking out of the mud.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo says all victims of the earthquake must be found.
Hundreds of people are believed to be entombed in slowly drying mud that enveloped communities south of Palu when the quake triggered soil liquefaction, a phenomenon that turns the ground into a roiling quagmire.
Arnaud Allibert and four other members of the group Pompiers Humanitaires Francais were the first rescuers in to one grim expanse of jumbled debris on Saturday, which is all that remains of the village of Petobo.
‘SO MANY CORPSES’
The team’s task is to find and retrieve the bodies at the surface to clear the way for the heavy machinery to come in and dig deeper.
It’s going to be a long, hard job.
“We’re going to clear off all the superficial rubble that’s on top and get into the spaces and see if there are bodies,” Allibert said as he surveyed a dreadful jumble of debris.
“If there are bodies in the spaces, we’ll extract them. If we see body parts sticking out, we’re going to dig to get the body out … It’s a long-term job but after that, they’ll come with the heavy machinery,” he said.
No one knows how many people were dragged to their deaths when the ground under Petobo and nearby areas south of Palu dissolved so violently.
Homes were sucked into the earth, torn apart and thrust hundreds of metres by the churning mud.
The national disaster agency says 1700 homes in one neighbourhood alone were swallowed up and hundreds of people disappeared.
Allibert said it would take months to find all the bodies.
“It might take 4 to 5 months to remove all the soil and that’s with the excavators,” he said.
“The excavators can’t take huge amounts of soil because there are bodies underneath, you have to scrape the earth carefully.” Traumatised survivors are desperate for any help.
“There are so many corpses around here,” said Irwan, 37, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
“I’m from here so all my family are here, so many are gone,” he said. Indonesia has traditionally been reluctant to be seen as having to rely on outside help for natural disasters.
The government shunned foreign aid this year when earthquakes struck the island of Lombok but said it would accept help from abroad for Sulawesi.