Sumatra shaken by aftershocks as separate quake hits

Indonesia’s Sumatra island was pounded by aftershocks on Thursday after a massive earthquake toppled hundreds of buildings, killing at least 10 people and burying many others in the wreckage.

Tsunami warnings were repeatedly issued and lifted for Indian Ocean countries after the magnitude-8,4 earthquake—the biggest anywhere in the world this year—was followed over the next 18 hours by 22 tremors in the same area ranging in intensity from 4,9 to 7,8.

A separate earthquake was reported at about 10am GMT off Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, to the east of Sumatra. Indonesia’s meteorological agency put the magnitude of the quake at 6,4, at a depth of 30km and issued a tsunami warning but soon lifted it.

An Australian seismologist said the region was lucky to have escaped a devastating tsunami after the Sumatra quake, similar to the one triggered by the 2004 quake that killed more than 280 000 people.

“There was a tsunami created by the earthquake; it just travelled in a south-west direction away from land,” said Mike Turnbull at Central Queensland University.

The initial quake—which took place on the eve of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and was felt in neighbouring Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand—cut communication lines and sparked widespread panic in the hours that followed. But by Thursday evening, it appeared the region may have been spared a major disaster.

“We are grateful for the fact that the situation wasn’t as bad as we initially thought it would be,” said Muhammad Syamlan, vice-governor of Bengkulu province, whose capital, Bengkulu, was close to the epicentre of the quake.
“During this holy fasting month we have prepared fasting break meals and pre-dawn meals for those who cannot return to their homes.”

A Reuters photographer in Bengkulu’s provincial capital said the situation appeared calm, with shops reopening and people milling around. The province, one of Indonesia’s key coffee-growing regions, has a population of about 1,57-million.

Trapped

Many people chose to sleep out in the open on Wednesday night rather than return indoors, said a Red Cross official in Bengkulu, a mountainous area that attracts few foreign tourists. The roads in north Bengkulu were lined with tents as many residents feared more quakes and did not want to return to their damaged homes.

The vice-governor said that 10 people had died and at least 20 were injured in his province, where damage to homes and infrastructure was extensive. Nearly 800 houses collapsed and many more were damaged, but the full extent of the damage was still unknown because of the difficulty of travelling to or contacting some areas.

The mayor of Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, told Reuters many people were trapped under collapsed buildings. A Reuters witness there said a four-storey car showroom had collapsed in the town, trapping several staff. At least one body was carried away from the rubble.

Rustam Pakaya, head of the Indonesian Health Ministry’s crisis centre in Jakarta, said 10 people had been killed and 51 injured across the quake-hit region. “The North Bengkulu area has been identified as the worst hit with half the area destroyed,” he said.

The area, which relies heavily on coffee and rubber, was hit seven years ago by a powerful earthquake that killed more than 100 and damaged thousands of buildings.

Indonesia suffers frequent quakes, as it lies on an active seismic belt on the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire”.

A huge earthquake measuring more than 9 in intensity struck the same area of Indonesia on December 26 2004, causing a massive tsunami and more than 280 000 deaths in countries across the Indian Ocean region.

Australian seismologist Turnbull said the way the seabed ruptured caused that tsunami to head towards Sumatra, but Wednesday’s quake saw a tsunami travel south-west, away from land, where it eventually petered out in the southern oceans.

A team of ministers arrived in Bengkulu, along with a medical team, a tonne of medications, baby formula, tents and body bags.—Reuters

Additional reporting by Harry Suhartono, Adhityani Arga and Telly Nathalia in Jakarta, John Nedi in Padang, Beawiharta in Bengkulu and Michael Perry in Sydney

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