Indonesia earthquake toll exceeds 250 as rescuers comb rubble for survivors

The death toll from the earthquake that shook the Indonesian island of Java rose to at least 268 on Tuesday as more bodies were found under collapsed buildings.

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Cianjur’s regional disaster management agency said on its Instagram site that the death toll rose from 162 reported the night before. A further 151 people are missing and over 1,000 have been injured.

The city of Cianjur, south of Jakarta, was near the epicenter of the 5.6-magnitude earthquake that struck Monday afternoon. The temblor sent terrified residents fleeing into the streets, some covered in blood and debris, and caused buildings around the countryside to collapse.

One woman told The Associated Press that when the earthquake struck, her home in Cianjur “started shaking like it was dancing.”

“I cried and immediately grabbed my husband and my children,” said the woman, who gave her name only as Partinem. The house collapsed shortly after she escaped with her family.

“If I hadn’t pulled them out, we might have been victims too,” she said, gazing over the pile of concrete and cinder blocks.

In the village of Cijedil, northwest of Cianjur, the quake triggered a landslide that blocked streets and buried several houses, and there were reports that 25 people were still buried, said Henri Alfiandi, head of the National Search and Rescue Agency.

– We are maximizing operations at several points where it is suspected that there are still casualties. Our team is also trying to reach remote areas,” he said. “For us, all victims are a priority, our goal is to find them and save lives by getting them evacuated as soon as possible and getting medical help.”

With hospitals already overwhelmed, patients lay on stretchers and cots in tents set up outside, with intravenous drips in their arms as they waited for further treatment.

Many of the dead were public school students who had finished their lessons for the day and were taking extra classes in Islamic schools when the buildings collapsed, West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil said.

Initial rescue efforts were hampered by damaged roads and bridges and power outages and a lack of heavy equipment to help move the heavy concrete masses. By Tuesday, the power supply and telephone communications had begun to improve.

Operations were focused on about a dozen locations in Cianjur, where people are still believed to be trapped, said Endra Atmawidjaja, spokesperson for public works and housing.

“We are racing against time to save people,” Atmawidjaja said, adding that seven excavators and 10 large trucks had been deployed from nearby Bandung and Bogor cities to continue clearing trees and soil blocking roads.

Truckloads of food, tents, blankets and other supplies from Jakarta arrived early Tuesday in temporary shelters. Still, thousands spent the night in the open for fear of aftershocks.

“Buildings were completely flattened,” said Dwi Sarmadi, who works for an Islamic education foundation in a nearby district.

President Joko Widodo visited Cianjur on Tuesday to reassure people of the government’s response to reach those in need.

“On behalf of myself and the government, I want to express my deepest condolences to the victims and their families of this earthquake in Cianjur,” he said after visiting survivors in shelters at a soccer field.

He promised to rebuild infrastructure, including the main bridge connecting Cianjur with other towns, and to provide government aid of up to 50 million rupiah ($3,180) to each resident whose house was damaged.

About 175,000 people live in Cianjur, part of a mountainous district of the same name with more than 2.5 million people. Known for their piety, the people of Cianjur live mostly in towns with one- and two-story houses and in smaller dwellings in the surrounding countryside.

Kamil said more than 13,000 people whose homes were heavily damaged were taken to evacuation centers. Outside the Cianjur regional hospital, hundreds waited for treatment.

“I was working inside my office building. The building was not damaged, but because the earthquake shook very strongly, many things fell. My leg was hit by heavy things,” Sarmadi said.

He waited near a tent outside the hospital after some overwhelmed clinicians were unable to see him. Many people came in worse shape. “I really hope they can handle me soon,” he said.

Hasan, a construction worker who like many Indonesians uses one name, was also one of the survivors taken to the hospital.

“I passed out. It was very strong,” Hasan recalled. “I saw my friends running to escape the building. But it was too late to get out and I was hit by the wall.”

The quake occurred at a depth of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). It also caused panic in the greater Jakarta area, about a three-hour drive away, where high-rise buildings swayed and some people were evacuated.

The country of more than 270 million people is frequently hit by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis due to its location in an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific basin known as the “Ring of Fire”.

In February, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake killed at least 25 people and injured more than 460 in West Sumatra province. In January 2021, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake killed more than 100 people and injured nearly 6,500 in West Sulawesi province.

A powerful earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries, most of them in Indonesia.

(Axadle with AP and REUTERS)

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