Rescue teams raced against time on a sombre Christmas Eve yesterday to pull out survivors from under the debris in two Indonesian provinces, more than 48 hours after a tsunami devastated the shoreline.
Their efforts were hampered by fear and panic spreading through the area as experts warned that more deadly waves could slam the beaches as the volcanic island of Anak Krakatau continued to spew ash.
The death toll rose to 281 yesterday and scores of others were still missing, with their chances of survival getting bleaker with each passing hour.
The rescuers faced a daunting task, as thousands of soldiers and volunteers used their bare hands, diggers and heavy equipment to sift through the wreck-age across a 100km stretch of beach in Banten province on the main Java Island, and in Sumatra's Lampung province.
Meanwhile, families streamed out of the area for fear of further tsunamis, jamming roads already blocked by debris and making the rescuers' task even harder.
Their fears are not unfounded, as the authorities have already banned all beach activities in the area and experts have warned that the waves could hit again.
Indonesia's meteorological agency confirmed yesterday that 64ha of Anak Krakatau had collapsed, leading to last Saturday evening's tsunami, Reuters reported. "This caused an underwater landslide that eventually caused the tsunami," said Professor Dwikorita Karnawati, head of the meteorological agency.
British geohazard expert Richard Teeuw told Agence France-Presse: "The likelihood of further tsu-namis in the Sunda Strait will remain high while Anak Krakatau is going through its current active phase because that may trigger further submarine landslides."
Unlike those caused by earthquakes, which trigger alarm systems, such tsunamis give the authorities very little time to warn residents of the impending threat.
President Joko Widodo, who visited the area yesterday, said an alert system for tsunamis caused by underwater landslides was needed.
"I have instructed the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysical Agency to buy a detection device or a system that would provide an early warning so that the residents can be spared," he said.
Residents were not taking any chances, and an exodus out of the affected area was underway.
Pastor Markus Taekz, 59, caretaker of Rahmat Carita church, across the road from Carita Beach, told The Straits Times that more than 200 members of his church had fled their homes. "We will go ahead with our Christmas Day mass, but it will start two hours later than usual so that those who have gone afar can travel here," he said.
Meanwhile, residents are still coming to terms with the violence of the tsunami. Mr Karman Talib, 40, who works for a company that builds guesthouses using metal containers, said he saw 20-foot containers get hurled across the road through the force of the waves.
Everything built with bamboo on the white sands of the beach has been flattened. Unclaimed bodies are being buried in mass graves.
At Sukarame village, policemen have been asked by residents to look for bodies beneath the debris.
"They said they could smell something bad here," said a policeman.
- Additional information from Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Xinhua
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