Navy ships packed with medicine and food and rescuers in helicopters headed Wednesday to remote Indonesian islands that were pounded by a 10-foot tsunami, sweeping away villages and killing at least 154 people.
Rough seas and bad weather have hampered relief operations, leaving villagers to fend for themselves for nearly two days. With not enough people to dig graves, corpses littered beaches and roads, according to district chief, Edison Salelo Baja. Fisherman were scouring waters in search of survivors.
The fault line that ruptured Monday on Sumatra island’s coast also caused the 2004 quake and monster Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.
Disaster officials have been unable so far to reach many of the villages on the hardest hit Mentawai islands – a popular surfer’s destination that is usually reachable only by a 12-hour boat ride. But they were preparing for the worst Wednesday.
Hundreds of body bags were being sent to the scene, said Mujiharto, who heads the Health Ministry’s crisis center.
Indonesia was dealing with two major disasters this week. The country’s most volatile volcano, Mount Merapi, 800 miles to the east, started to erupt at dusk Tuesday as scientists warned that pressure building beneath its lava dome could trigger one of the most powerful blasts in years. At least 28 people were killed.
The two disasters were not related, but they both fell along Indonesia’s portion of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, a series of fault lines that are prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.
The 7.7-magnitude quake that struck late Monday just 13 miles beneath the ocean floor was followed by at least 14 aftershocks, the largest measuring 6.2.
Harmensyah, who heads the West Sumatra provincial disaster management center, said Wednesday that the number of people killed in the tsunami had climbed to 154 and more than 400 others were missing.
The first cargo plane loaded down with 16 tons of tents, medicine, food and clothes was expected to arrive by Wednesday afternoon, said Nelis Zuliastri, a spokeswoman for the National Disaster Management Agency.
Two helicopters also were on the way, as was a Navy ship and a boat carrying dozens of police and military personnel, said Ade Edward, another disaster official.
Officials say hundreds of wooden and bamboo homes were washed away on the island of Pagai, with water flooding crops and roads up to 600 yards inland. In Muntei Baru, a village on Silabu island, 80 percent of the houses were badly damaged.
Those and other islets hit were part of the Mentawai island chain, 175 miles from Sumatra.
Eight Australian survivors, and American and a New Zealander arrived in the Sumatran city of Padang on Wednesday, recounting their harrowing encounter with the tsunami.
They said they were on the back deck of their anchored boat, the ‘MV Midas,’ when the wall of water smashed them into a neighboring vessel, triggering a fire that quickly ripped through their cabin.
“They hit us directly in the side of the boat, piercing a fuel tank,” said Daniel North, the American crew member. “Almost immediately, the captain gave the order to abandon ship and everyone got off the boat.”
They clung to surfboards, fenders – anything that floated – as they washed in the wetlands and then climbed the highest trees they could find and waited for more than 90 minutes until they felt safe.
Ade Edward, a disaster management agency official, said crews from a tourist boat were found safe after more than 24 hours missing in the Indian Ocean, including up to nine foreigners. NPR