By Fathin Ungku
PALU, Indonesia (Reuters) – More than a week after a major earthquake hit the west coast of Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, rescuers workers were focusing on Saturday on what looks sure to be a long, difficult search for bodies, many buried in appalling morasses of debris and mud.
President Joko Widodo has said all of the victims of the 7.5 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck on Sept. 28 must be found.
The official death toll from the quake and the tsunami it triggered has risen to 1,649, but will certainly increase.
Most of the dead have been found in the region’s main urban centre, the small city of Palu. Figures for more remote areas, some just re-connected to the outside world by road, are trickling in.
No one knows how many people were dragged to their deaths when the quake triggered soil liquefaction, a phenomenon that turns the ground into a roiling quagmire. Communities in the south of Palu were particularly hard hit.
The national disaster agency says 1,700 homes in one neighbourhood alone were swallowed up. Many hundreds of people are now entombed in slowly drying mud churned with heaps of debris and vehicles.
In the Balaroa neighbourhood of Palu, rescuers found 34 bodies on Saturday, and laid them out in a row of blue and orange bags, among them 10-year-old Dede Aulianisa.
Her parents recognised her from the clothes she was wearing when the quake struck.
“I’m certain it’s her. She was wearing the exact scout uniform, with a sweater with the words ‘Geng 97’,” her father, Anwar, who like many Indonesian goes by only one name, told Reuters.
“When the land split, she happened to be on the side that collapsed,” he said. “She was such a happy child. Very intelligent. Her teachers loved her and she had many friends.”
The most intact structure in the area was a battered two-storey house, pitched over at nearly 45 degrees with one side buried and a blue vehicle in the car port.
In the Petobo neighbourhood nearby, a team of French rescue experts began hunting through an expanse of debris, looking for hands, feet or any body parts of victims sticking out of the mud.
Arnaud Allibert and four other members of the group Pompiers Humanitaires Francais were the first rescuers to venture into that area.
The team will scour the debris and find and retrieve bodies at the surface, to clear the way for excavators to dig deeper.
“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,” Allibert told Reuters.
Allibert said it would take a long time 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 help.
“There are so many corpses around here,” said Irwan, 37, a resident of Petobo, standing amidst the ruins.
“So many are gone,” he said, reeling off a list of his missing relatives including a sister, an aunt and cousins.
Amidst the shock and grief, some better news emerged.
The lives of many villagers at the epicentre of a quake were spared because they had been terrified by a smaller tremor that hit earlier and had run outside.
A coastal strip dotted with villages north of Palu was cut off for nearly a week by landslides blocking its single road. But the way is now open and aid is trickling in to the area that rescue workers feared had been obliterated.
While destruction is extensive, with many houses destroyed, villagers said countless lives were saved by a 6.1 magnitude quake that struck about 20 km (12 miles) to the south three hours earlier.
“Luckily most people were already outside,” said Rahman Lakuaci, chief of Lende Tovea village in Sirenja district.
Authorities have yet to conduct a tally of casualties in districts near the epicentre, but Lakuaci estimated dozens of people had been killed.
Indonesia has traditionally been reluctant to be seen as relying on outside help to cope with disasters, and the government shunned foreign aid this year when earthquakes struck the island of Lombok.
But it has accepted help from abroad for the disaster in Sulawesi.
Despite that, Allibert said it had been difficult to get permits for Sulawesi.
Michael Lesmeister, director of Germany’s ISAR-Germany rescue group, said landing permits for his staff and cargo had come through and, after a three-day wait, they were set to install a water-purification system in Palu.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abdurrahman Mohammad Fachir told a briefing in Jakarta ministries were coordinating to facilitate the arrival of aid.
(GRAPHIC-Catastrophe in Sulawesi, https://tmsnrt.rs/2OqQlUo)
(GRAPHIC-Destruction in Palu, https://tmsnrt.rs/2IDFukK)
(Additional reporting by Fergus Jensen in PALU, Hannibal Hanschke, Jessica Damiana in JAKARTA, Kanupriya Kapoor, Ton Allard in SIRENJA; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)