Search for tsunami survivors amid rising death toll

Rescuers on Tuesday desperately sifted through wreckage for survivors of a tsunami that killed more than 340 people and left scores missing when it slammed into Indonesia’s Java coast.

In a harrowing reminder of the 2004 disaster that left 220 000 dead across Asia, walls of water up to 3m high smashed ashore Monday, toppling buildings and sending thousands of terrified residents fleeing.

The tsunami was triggered by a 7,7-magnitude undersea earthquake off the south coast of Java island, where no early warning system had yet been put in place and many residents had no inkling of the tragedy to come.

Saudi national Hamed Abukhamiss was among the survivors struggling to come to terms with losing loved ones, as he mourned his wife and three-year-old son.

Abukhamiss had been enjoying a drink at a beachside cafe in Pangandaran, one of Java’s most beautiful and popular beaches, with his wife and two of his children, when they saw the tsunami approaching and tried to flee.

“My wife said, ‘You take the girl, I’ll take the boy!’ Suddenly they were swept away by powerful water,” he told Agence France-Presse (AFP), choking back tears.

“At one point when I was underwater I told myself, that’s it for me — but I didn’t give up.”

After combing through the wreckage of the pulverised beachfront, he found the lifeless body of his 30-year-old wife Sahar, smashed against a wall by their hire car as she still clutched the body of their three-year-old son.

“I don’t know how I’m alive — it’s a miracle,” he said.

At least 343 people were killed and 431 people injured across six districts along Central and West Java provinces, the Social Affairs Ministry said.

Most deaths were in Pangandaran in West Java’s Ciamis district, about 270km south-east of Jakarta.

Among the dead were a Japanese and a Belgian, the head of the Health Ministry’s crisis centre, Rustam Pakaya, told AFP. Sweden’s Foreign Ministry said one of its nationals had died.

The whereabouts of two Swedish children reported missing remained unknown.

The state Antara news agency said a 58-year-old Dutchman, identified as Elman, was also among the foreigners killed. A spokesperson from the Dutch embassy could not immediately confirm the report.

About 115 people remained missing while 68 464 people had been displaced by the surges of water. Television footage showed many residents still hiding in the hills, too afraid to return home.

Agus Sutrisno, head of disaster relief in Ciamis, said more than 1 500 workers were combing coastal areas for survivors and bodies.

International tsunami alerts were issued on Monday but they did not reach the victims as no early warning system was in place in Indonesia.

“Our system is not yet working properly. We are still developing a communication system especially for the regions,” Fauzi, an official working on the early warning project from the meteorology agency in Jakarta, told AFP.

A 24-year-old surfer, Budi, said he was offshore at Batu Keras beach, 30km west of Pangandaran, when the quake struck.

“I couldn’t feel anything and then about five minutes after the water subsided, the waves came,” he told AFP.

Budi said he thought the ocean drawing back may have been a sign of the waves about to lash the coast, but many people began rushing out towards the withdrawing waters to look at fish flapping — an eerie reminder of the way many lives were claimed in December 2004.

About 168 000 people were killed in Indonesia’s Aceh province.

The Indonesian government said it had allocated one billion rupiah ($108 000) for initial emergency aid in the wake of the disaster.

“The emergency phase will require food, places for displaced people and medicine,” Vice-President Yusuf Kalla was quoted as saying by the Detikcom online news service.

The United Nation’s World Food Programme said it was sending two truckloads, or 15 tons, of high-energy biscuits and noodles. The Health Ministry said it had sent 20 tons of medical supplies and food.

At Pangandaran, a sleepy vacation spot that lures both domestic and foreign tourists, residents were slowly returning to inspect damaged homes.

The beach and nearby streets were strewn with chunks of concrete, wooden planks that were once food stalls and tiles ripped from hotel roofs, while boats were marooned on shore. — AFP

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