Indonesia’s vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, has warned the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami that struck the island of Sulawesi could rise into the thousands, as more than 150 aftershocks hit the region.
The confirmed death toll from the disaster has reached 420, state media said on Sunday, but that is expected to rise significantly as rescuers scramble to reach the worst-hit areas. Kalla said there had been “no word” yet about casualties in Donggala, home to 300,000 people.
There were particular concerns about the whereabouts of hundreds of people preparing for a beach festival that had been due to start on Friday, a spokesman for the BNPB national disaster agency said.
At least 540 people had been badly injured, the agency said, as hospitals struggled to cope with the influx of casualties, setting up open-air clinics to treat the injured.
Rescuers working to retrieve people from the Roa Roa hotel in Palu said they could hear the voices of people inside but did not have the heavy equipment needed to get to them.
The Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, who is to visit the region on Sunday, said the military was being called in to the region to help search-and-rescue teams get to victims and find bodies following Friday’s 7.5-magnitude earthquake and 1.5-metre (5ft) tsunami.
The cities of Palu and Donggala remain without power and fuel supplies are running low. Some government planes carrying relief supplies managed to land at the main airport in Palu, although officials said it would likely remain closed to commercial flights for days.
On Sunday BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho shared video showing the “liquefaction” of the land when the tsunami struck.
In Palu – home to 350,000 people – partially covered bodies lay near the shore and survivors sifted through a tangled mess of corrugated steel roofing, timber, rubble and flotsam. One man was seen carrying the muddy corpse of a small child.
“Many corpses are scattered on the beach and floating on the surface of the sea,” one local resident, Nining, told kompas.com.
Many did not return to their homes as night fell and slept in makeshift shelters, terrified that powerful aftershocks could topple damaged homes.
A Facebook page for information on Palu city has become a pop-up ledger for missing persons, with family members posting pictures of their missing children, wives, fathers and grandparents, in the hope that someone will find them.
Some voiced criticism of the agency that lifted the tsunami warning. The agency said it followed standard operating procedure and made the call to “end” the warning based on data available from the closest tidal sensor, around 200km from Palu.
“We have no observation data at Palu. So we had to use the data we had and make a call based on that,” said Rahmat Triyono, head of the earthquakes and tsunami centre at BMKG. He said the closest tide gauge, which measures changes in the sea level, only recorded an “insignificant” 6cm wave and did not account for the giant waves near Palu.
The tsunami was triggered by a strong quake that brought down buildings and sent locals fleeing for higher ground as a churning wall of water crashed into Palu. “We all panicked and ran out of the house” when the quake hit, said Anser Bachmid, a 39-year-old Palu resident. “People here need aid – food, drink, clean water.”
Dramatic video footage captured from the top floor of a parking ramp in Palu, nearly 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the quake’s epicentre, showed waves bring down several buildings and inundate a large mosque.
“I just ran when I saw the waves hitting homes on the coastline,” said Palu resident Rusidanto, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
About 17,000 people have been evacuated, the disaster agency said.
“This was a terrifying double disaster,” said Jan Gelfand, a Jakarta-based official at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “The Indonesian Red Cross is racing to help survivors but we don’t know what they’ll find there.”
“We have heard nothing from Donggala and this is extremely worrying,” Gelfand said. “There are more than 300,000 people living there. This is already a tragedy, but it could get much worse.”
Malaysia and Australia are among the countries that have offered to send help. “If he [Widodo] needs our help, he’ll have it,” the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, said on Sunday.
Friday’s tremor was also felt in the far south of the island in its largest city Makassar and on neighbouring Kalimantan, Indonesia’s portion of Borneo island.
The initial quake struck as evening prayers were about to begin in the world’s biggest Muslim majority country on the holiest day of the week, when mosques are especially busy.
Indonesia is one of the most disaster-prone nations on earth. It lies on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where tectonic plates collide and many of the world’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.
Earlier this year, a series of powerful quakes hit Lombok, killing more than 550 people on the holiday island and neighbouring Sumbawa.
Indonesia has been hit by a string of other deadly quakes including a devastating 9.1-magnitude tremor that struck off the coast of Sumatra in December 2004.
That Boxing Day quake triggered a tsunami that killed 220,000 throughout the region, including 168,000 in Indonesia.