Indonesia Tsunami Sets Off Desperate Effort to Account for Dead


PALU, Indonesia — Nathan, 17, had run to safety when a powerful earthquake struck his high school on Friday in Palu, on the island of Sulawesi. But he couldn’t resist going back to rescue his motorbike.

He died when he was hit by falling debris from the school’s Advent Church, which also was his home. It took three days for his uncle, the pastor, to find his body.

On the outskirts of Palu, Nathan’s mother, Ling Ling, lay Tuesday morning on the freshly turned dirt of his grave and wailed. She clutched at his headstone. Fistfuls of brown earth slipped between her fingers.

“I’m broken,” she cried at the Poboya Indah cemetery as her husband tried to console her. “I have no hope anymore. Let me be the one to die. My life is useless.”

The cemetery on the eastern side of Palu has become a focal point for the city’s grief as it slowly tries to recover from the magnitude-7.5 quake and the devastating tsunami that it set off.

[Surveying the damage: Scenes from the Indonesian tsunami]

Officials said Tuesday that at least 1,234 people in Indonesia had died, including 120 foreigners. Others, still uncounted, lie in the rubble of ruined buildings or were swept away by the tsunami, which in some places reached a height of more than 20 feet.

Nearly 6,400 personnel from an array of government agencies — including the military, the police, the national search-and-rescue agency and the Energy and Mineral Resources Department — were involved in efforts to find survivors, recover bodies and evacuate people from the stricken area, officials said.

More help and equipment were on the way.

As hope for rescuing trapped survivors dwindled, family members turned to the heartbreak of burying those whose bodies were found.

In the equatorial heat, the authorities had little choice but to bury the bodies quickly, mostly in mass graves, first taking fingerprints and photographs for help in identifying them later.

On Tuesday, four trucks loaded with the dead headed up the hill to the Poboya Indah cemetery in what has become a daily ritual. Fifty-four bodies were buried by morning, and more trucks were on their way. The day before, 153 were buried here.

Workers using heavy equipment dug a swimming pool-size hole and placed the bodies in rows. Many were in body bags and others were wrapped in carpets, including some with an incongruous cartoon-character design.

“We’re going to hold a mass burial every day,” said Firman, an army officer who was overseeing the operation. Like many Indonesians, he uses one name.

Fosmawati, 54, was there to bury her husband, Mujiono, 56, in the mass grave. She found his body at the Nasanapura Hospital. “I recognized my husband from his clothes,” she said.

At the time of the earthquake, he was working at a chicken farm in Petobo, one of two neighborhoods that were destroyed when the earthquake turned the soft, saturated soil beneath them into jelly. About 2,500 homes around Palu were destroyed that way, officials said.

Ms. Fosmawati said she understood that the urgency of the disaster meant Mr. Mujiono would have no imam to preside at his funeral and pray for him.

“It’s too complicated for him to have his own burial,” she said. “There is no imam for praying or people to carry the dead body. This is a quake situation.”

In the valley below the cemetery, at Palu’s airport, military cargo planes arrived in a steady stream and left with evacuees.

A flight officer said about 20 flights a day were arriving. One brought 250 police officers to help reduce looting in the city and keep order. It also delivered more than 1,000 yellow body bags.

Seated on the tarmac were groups of residents hoping to get out. As one group waited in the shade of the damaged terminal, a piece of debris fell from the roof. The crowd panicked and stampeded before regrouping in a more open area of the tarmac.

Fira Abdurachman and Adam Dean reported from Palu, and Richard Paddock from Mamuju, Indonesia. Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting from Jakarta.

Source : Nytimes