500 missing after Indonesian disasters

2010-10-27 09:10

Jakarta - Indonesia struggled on Wednesday to find bodies and survivors after a tsunami smashed into a remote island chain and a volcano erupted, leaving scores dead and thousands homeless in natural disasters that struck less than 24 hours apart.

Entire villages were washed away and houses flattened when waves triggered by a powerful earthquake late on Monday pounded an area off the west coast of Sumatra on a major fault line in a region known as the "Pacific Ring of Fire".

At least 112 people were killed and over 500 remain missing, officials said on Wednesday.

"When the tsunami struck there were dozens of fishermen out at sea. Their bodies were found the next morning floating on the water or cast ashore on the beach," said West Sumatra disaster management head Harmensyah.

"We need to find the missing people as soon as possible. Some of them might have run away to the mountains, but many would have been swept away."

Volcano on Java Island erupts

Several hundred kilometres away on the central island of Java, another 25 people were killed when the country's most active volcano, Mount Merapi, erupted on Tuesday, spewing searing clouds of gas and molten lava into the sky.

Thousands of villagers have been ordered to leave the area and move to temporary shelters.

Monday's 7.7-magnitude quake struck in the remote Mentawai Islands, an area popular with surfers, generating waves as high as three metres and sweeping away 10 villages, officials said.

The tsunami surged as far as 600 metres inland on South Pagai Island, officials said. On North Pagai Island, a resort and almost 200 houses were flattened, officials said.

Medical personnel were on their way to the worst-hit areas in helicopters but rescue efforts had been hampered by disruption to communications in the islands, which are about half a day's ferry ride away from the port of Padang on Sumatra.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has cut short a visit to Vietnam for a summit of Southeast Asian leaders because of the disasters, a diplomatic source said in Hanoi.

US President Barack Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a boy and is due to return there on an Asian tour next month, voiced his sadness over the deaths and pledged US help.

‘Wall of white water’

The massive Indonesian archipelago straddles a region where the meeting of several continental plates causes high volcanic and seismic activity. It has the world's largest number of active volcanoes and is shaken by thousands of earthquakes every year.

One Australian tour guide said on Tuesday his boat with 15 people aboard was destroyed by a "wall of white water" crashing into a bay after the undersea quake and said some had to cling to trees to survive.

"The bay we were in was several hundred metres across and the wall of white water was from one side to the other, it was quite scary," Rick Hallet, who operates a charter-boat business, told Fairfax Radio Network.

Another group of nine Australian surfers was alive and well after going missing following the tsunami, officials said.

3 explosions heard

Less than 24 hours after the tsunami struck, Mount Merapi erupted with clouds of gas and molten lava, killing at least 25 people including a baby and a man known as the volcano's traditional "gatekeeper".

"We heard three explosions around 11:00 GMT spewing volcanic material as high as 1.5km and sending heat clouds down the slopes," government volcanologist Surono told AFP.

Thousands of people fled in panic after the eruption, some covered in white ash, as officials with loudhailers tried to help them escape the area. Television footage showed long queues of trucks and cars.

Authorities may have saved many lives when they ordered thousands of people to flee from a 10km danger zone on Monday, after raising the threat level for the volcano to red, the highest possible.

The order affected about 19 000 people but it was not clear how many had obeyed and moved to temporary shelters.

The 2 914 metre Mount Merapi, 400km east of Jakarta, is the most active of the 69 volcanoes with histories of eruptions in Indonesia.