PALU • Indonesian rescue workers will stop searching for the bodies of victims of an earthquake and tsunami on the island of Sulawesi on Thursday, the national disaster mitigation agency said yesterday, raising anger, sadness and resignation among relatives of those still missing.
The announcement came after the official death toll from the magnitude-7.4 quake and a tsunami it triggered on Sept 28 rose to 1,763.
Bodies are still being recovered, especially from the ruins of buildings in the small city of Palu and from neighbourhoods hit by liquefaction, a phenomenon that turns the ground into a roiling quagmire, in the south of the city.
"Evacuation stops on Oct 11," national disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told a news briefing, using an Indonesian word that applies to the search and retrieval of both living and dead people. "Victims who have not been found are declared missing."
Some limited search might still be undertaken but large-scale ones with many personnel and heavy equipment would cease, he said.
Many are still buried in mud and debris in the south of Palu, where neighbourhoods were obliterated by liquefaction. Desperate relatives have been seeking help to find loved ones.
Mr Sutopo said the debris would be removed from those places and they would be turned into public spaces such as parks and sports venues.
As many as this number of people may still be missing from two hard-hit areas in Palu - Balaroa and Petobo - according to national disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.
Surveys would be carried out and people living in areas vulnerable to liquefaction would be moved. "We don't want the community to be relocated to such dangerous places," said Mr Sutopo.
He said as many as 5,000 people may still be missing from two hard-hit areas in Palu. He based his estimate on figures from local heads in the Balaroa and Petobo areas of Palu city, where entire neighbourhoods disappeared in the twin disaster.
Most of the dead have been found in Palu, the region's main urban centre. Figures for more remote areas, some just reconnected to the outside world by road, are trickling in.
Said Ms Hajah Ikaya, 60: "Many of us are angry that we haven't found our families and friends, and they want to give up?" She said she lost her sister, brother-in-law and niece in the Balaroa neighbourhood. They are all missing.
One grieving father appeared resigned to the fact that the search for victims would end within days.
"What's the point anyway? At this stage, they are not even recognisable," said Mr Ondre, 38, who makes toys for a living. His wife and two daughters were swept away in the tsunami that hit Palu's seafront shortly after the earthquake. He found the bodies of his wife and older daughter but is still looking for his younger daughter, aged two.
Sulawesi is one of Indonesia's five main islands and, like the others, is exposed to frequent earthquakes and tsunamis.
In 2004, a quake off Sumatra island triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.
Earlier yesterday, dozens of Christians gathered outside ruined churches for open-air services to give thanks for their survival and to mourn members of their congregation killed in the disaster.
Indonesia has the world's biggest Muslim population, but there are Christian communities throughout the archipelago, including in Palu.
"We are so relieved to be alive but sad because so many of our congregation died," said 26-year-old economics student Dewi Febriani, after a service in a tent set up outside the Toraja Church in Jono Oge village, just south of Palu.
Jono Oge was particularly hard hit by liquefaction. Dozens of teenagers at a nearby church and Bible camp were killed. Many of their bodies lie buried in the mud.
A big aid operation is gearing up to help hard-hit communities where some 70,000 people have been displaced.