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Parents search for children killed at bible camp in Indonesian quake

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Parents search for children killed at bible camp in Indonesian quake

Remains of Jono Oge Protestant Church in Jono Ogoe, Indonesia on Oct. 6, 20
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Janis Mackey Frayer
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JONO OGE, Indonesia — The excavator clawed at the beige-colored pillars that jutted oddly from the debris. Then, it scooped concrete and wood and other remains of Jono Oge Protestant Church, including its metal cross.

Muis Pangallo watched the digging on Friday as he had done every day for the past week, hoping to recover the body of his daughter, Sharon Parilla.

The 17-year-old was among dozens of children attending a bible camp at the church when the7.5 magnitude earthquake struck last week.

"Yesterday I found her jacket," said, Pangallo, 45, his voice cracking, "I hope I can find her just to see her again."

Jono Oge is one of several communities in the Palu city region that was hit by the devastating effects of liquefaction — a phenomenon in which an earthquake turns loose, wet soil into quicksand-like mud.

Search crews, volunteers and heavy machinery were struggling to unearth victims from the churned ground that had literally sucked houses and people into it. The grim task is now more difficult as the mud hardens in the tropical sun.

The national disaster agency says 1,700 homes in one neighborhood alone were swallowed and hundreds of people killed.

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The official death toll from the quake and the tsunami it triggered rose to 1,649 on Saturday according to Indonesia's disaster agency, but it is almost certain to rise.

The government said it was considering making devastated areas into mass graves.

Pangallo carried a worn and dirt-covered booklet of photos showing kids who were at the bible camp. They were group shots of young men and women smiling for the camera — in one photo their hands were together in prayer.

Pangallo pointed to a girl posing with four friends, all of them dressed in grey and white school uniforms. She had shoulder-length dark hair and a dazzling smile. "My daughter," he said proudly.

Sharon Parilla (furthest right in the bottom left photo) was one of dozens of children who attended a bible camp at the Jono Oge Protestant Church when the earthquake hit Indonesia.
Sharon Parilla (furthest right in the bottom left photo) was one of dozens of children who attended a bible camp at the Jono Oge Protestant Church when the earthquake hit Indonesia.Janis Mackey Frayer

Dozens of them were at the church ahead of a Friday evening session of a bible camp when the massive earthquake hit, triggering a 20-foot-tall tsunami.

The quake turned the ground beneath them into a giant wave of mud that uprooted the church and carried it nearly a mile into a rice paddy.

There are small clues in the debris that distinguish the church in the stretches of wreckage: the crushed steeple on its side, a white sign with a painted blue cross, a wooden collection box.

Indonesia has the world's biggest Muslim population but also pockets of Christians and other religions, including on Sulawesi island. An archipelago of more than 250 million people, the country has been repeatedly plagued by quakes and tsunamis.

The national disaster agency says more than 148 million Indonesians are at risk in earthquake-prone areas and 3.8 million people also face danger from tsunamis, with at most a 40 minute window for warning people to flee.

The three tsunami waves that struck Palu were particularly swift, hitting within just 15 minutes of the quake.

The search crews and Indonesian soldiers near Jono Oge, in Sigi district south of Palu, fanned out across the wasteland that stretched in every direction. More than a hundred bodies have been pulled from the wreckage in the past week, at least 34 of them from the church.

When asked how many more were buried, one rescuer replied: "Too many."

When Pangallo and his wife did not hear from Sharon last Friday, he set out on his motorcycle but was quickly disoriented. The bridge was gone. There was a cornfield where the road should be. And he could not find the church.

Remains of Jono Oge Protestant Church in Indonesia on Oct. 6, 2018.
Remains of Jono Oge Protestant Church in Indonesia on Oct. 6, 2018.Janis Mackey Frayer

"Somebody on the road told me it was swept away to the next village," Pangallo recalled. So he walked through the mud to get there and found the priest who had survived.

"There were five bodies but none of them was Sharon," he said.

He was not the only parent left waiting. Siska Sumilat had visited the debris every morning, scouring for a sign of her 17-year-old daughter, Gabriella.

"I never had a bad feeling about letting her do something," she said, sitting in the shade to escape the midday heat, "especially at the church."

A small group of women walked between the coconut trees sprinkling flower petals onto the mud. A couple of them sang quietly, but as they reached the church the hymns were replaced by tears. They scattered a bag of vibrantly colored petals onto the ground.

Late in the afternoon, search teams discovered nearly two-dozen backpacks and overnight bags belonging to the students. Gabriella's was among them.

Sumilat howled with grief. She was helped along a corrugated metal path that had been laid down on the muck to a porch in a nearby yard. Her husband unzipped the bag and carefully pulled items from it: a pair of dark track pants, a flowered skirt, a thick book.

She took the clothes in her hands and pressed them to her face, weeping.

Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Jono Oge, Indonesia. Saphora Smith reported from London.