Indonesia quake toll stands at 330, may rise
GUNUNG SITOLI, Indonesia - Most of the deaths from Monday night's 8.7-magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean were on Nias, 75 miles south of the epicenter. By the end of Tuesday, the island's death toll stood at about 330, but government officials said it could climb as high as 2,000.
An unidentified official from nearby Aceh province told Indonesia's Metro TV that about 100 people also died on neighboring Simeulue island. Both islands are just west of Indonesia's much larger Sumatra island.
A soccer field in the center of town and close to the palm-fringed Indian Ocean beach was transformed into a triage center where a dozen seriously injured islanders — some of them unconscious — were lying on doors salvaged from wrecked homes. They waited, hoping that a relief agency helicopter would be able to airlift them to a hospital on Sumatra.
"Four people here might not make it through the night!" yelled one of the few Western aid workers to arrive in the town Tuesday. "Do you have space on a chopper?"
Only about 17 were taken off the island through Tuesday, officials said.
People swarmed around U.N. helicopters as they landed to deliver relief supplies, but food and water were in short supply.
The Dec. 26 Indian Ocean epic earthquake and tsunami — which killed more than 126,000 in Indonesia's Aceh province on Sumatra and thousands more throughout the region — left 340 dead and 10,000 homeless on Nias. But Monday's quake appeared to give this island its almost undivided attention.
"It was stronger than the Dec. 26 quake," a survivor who identified himself as Ebenezer said Tuesday. "In one minute, everything was destroyed. No one had a chance to run."
From the air, it appeared that about 30 percent of the buildings in Gunung Sitoli were destroyed, and there was significant damage in the island's second biggest town, Teluk Dalam. Inland areas appeared to be largely unaffected.
The temblor destroyed thousands of houses, shops and government buildings and sent thousands of residents fleeing to the hills in fear of killer waves. That fear of a second devastating tsunami extended to other countries around the Indian Ocean region; warnings were issued and sirens were sounded but authorities later withdrew the alerts.
Relief efforts for Nias faced daunting obstacles, as quake damaged Gunung Sitoli's airstrip and prevented all but small planes from landing.
The International Organization for Migration said it was sending trucks loaded with water, milk and other food items and medical supplies to the Sumatran port town of Sibolga, where they will be ferried to Nias.
There was very little food or water available to survivors — most of Gunung Sitoli's stores were smashed.
Medical care was also a major problem.
"The hospital is desperate. It had a tough night," said Peter Scott-Bowden of the World Food Program. "They are short of supplies."
People whose homes survived the quake feared that one of the many strong aftershocks that rattled Nias island on Tuesday would finally topple the walls.
Instead, as darkness fell on Gunung Sitoli, survivors huddled around candles in the streets.
Deli Iname sat patiently next to her 9-year-old daughter. The girl's face was swollen and her legs draped in a bloody sarong.
"She's so young. Why is her life in danger?" Iname asked. "She stood no chance."
Meanwhile, Datot Mendra — his brown eyes puffy and bloodshot — prepared to spend the night lying next to his wife. Tomorrow, he will bury her, his sister and two other relatives.
"What will I tell my children?" the 55-year-old restaurant owner says. "I can't face it. My faith in Jesus is helping me through this."
Mendra's wife was among some 20 bodies wrapped in white sheets, candles flickering at their heads, laid out on the street outside the Santa Maria church in this town on Indonesia's predominantly Roman Catholic Nias Island.
More were arriving. Groups of four men approached, each holding the corner of a sheet with another body.
Dave Jenkins, a New Zealand physician who runs the relief agency SurfAid International in western Sumatra, said he feared for about 10,000 people living on the tiny Banyak Islands, close to the quake's epicenter. By late Tuesday, contact had not been made with the islands.
While the scene outside the church was almost serene, elsewhere on this island of 600,000 people the atmosphere was anything but. Rescue workers working by candles and flashlight hunted through smoldering rubble for survivors in flattened buildings. Power was out, and electric cables lay tangled in the street.
Little heavy machinery was available, so families frantically searching for loved ones used crow bars and their bare hands to lift heavy chunks of concrete.
Smoke drifted out of piles of rubble and concrete homes where walls had folded in on themselves, almost certainly crushing to death anybody caught inside. A steeple had fallen from a church.
Although most of Indonesia is Muslim, Christianity persists in some areas — a
vestige of Dutch colonization. The Nias islanders, particularly the
well-organized southern villages, initially put up strong resistance when the
Dutch tried to take control. But the Dutch finally conquered the island in 1909,
and then Nias slowly started to convert to Christianity.