People and homes still unaccounted for after Indonesian earthquake turned ground into jelly

The village of Petobo, which lies 10km from Palu, Sulawesi, is now known as the "sunken village". At least 700 houses were swallowed up and buried during the quake. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Devastation along the coastal area in Palu, Sulawesi, on Oct 3, 2018. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
The village of Petobo, which lies 10km from Palu, Sulawesi, is now known as the "sunken village" after at least 700 houses were buried during the quake. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Devastation along the coastal area in Palu. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
A resident tries to salvage his collapsed home in the village of Petobo in Palu, on Oct 3, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

PALU, INDONESIA (NYTIMES) - Mr Munif Umayar, a survivor of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the city of Palu, took up a laborious search for his house on Wednesday (Oct 3) in the ruins of the Balaroa neighbourhood.

After a long hunt, and hard digging, he finally found it - at least 137 metres from where he guessed he used to live.

That was the power of the earthquake, turning the ground into jelly in a deadly churn that eradicated landmarks and sent buildings flowing sideways even as they were being sucked down into rubble.

"I had to dig hard to know that this was my house," said Mr Munif, a 50-year-old businessman. "When I found it, I put a flag on it, as a sign."

He fears his brother was trapped inside.

Balaroa is a middle-class collection of housing developments in Palu and it is the centre of some of the worst damage from the quake that hit Indonesia last Friday.

In the midst of a disaster that killed with both water and earth over a wider stretch of Sulawesi Island - the official toll rose to at least 1,407 dead on Wednesday - Balaroa sustained almost no damage from the ensuing tsunami.

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Instead, the neighbourhood was laid waste when the earthquake caused a phenomenon known as liquefaction, undermining and destroying at least 1,747 homes in this part of town alone.

Balaroa is now a vast wasteland of debris. Rooftops are all that remain of many houses. The minaret of a mosque, leaning precariously to one side, is one of the few structures still standing.

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Across Palu and in neighbouring areas, many people are still unaccounted for. Officials put the number of missing at 113, but that was only those who had been reported.

An untold number were swept away by the tsunami, especially by the third and final wave that was more than 6 metres high in some places. And many bodies are thought to still be buried under rubble in places like Balaroa.

The quake struck at 6.02pm local time, an hour when many would have been at home.

After days of makeshift efforts, heavy equipment was going to work around the city on Wednesday, used by military crews to help dig out bodies and clear roads.

The bodies were there, locals knew, because of the smell. As crews dug into the earth in one obliterated corner of Balaroa, a woman's arm became visible, then her head. Pushing away rebar and concrete, the workers found more: a small child, clutching to her in their last moments.

In the devastated neighbourhood, demolished buildings were covered in layers of corrugated iron roofing. Buckled rods and downed electric pylons jutted out. Cars and vehicles stuck up at improbable angles, many of them missing fuel caps - probably from scavengers siphoning off fuel.

The neighbourhood of Petobo, which like Balaroa was built on soft soil in a low-lying area, was also demolished by liquefaction. At least 744 houses were destroyed there.

All told, 4,413 buildings were said to have collapsed in Palu, and 773 more in the neighbouring town of Donggala, said Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesman for Indonesia's disaster management agency.

Recovery efforts were picking up on Wednesday as more goods became available and shopkeepers felt safe enough to reopen small stores and market stalls.

For many, days of focus on basic survival appeared to be shifting toward efforts to restore some semblance of normal life in a ruined city.

Assistance from other countries also was beginning to arrive, including from Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Britain.

Outside Palu, along the main road through the district of Donggala, houses on the seaward side had been smashed by the tsunami and houses on the inland side destroyed by the quake.

Some residents sat in front of the remains of their homes as goats roamed nearby. Others asked for donations along the roadside, including one woman wearing a hijab who carried her young son in one arm and a box with instant noodles and drinking water in the other.

Residents complained that aid was not being distributed fairly, with much of it going to Palu instead of the outlying areas.

In the sub-district of Baladonda, south of Donggala, some young men aggressively sought "donations" from passing motorists.

One driver handed over a box of instant noodles. The next coughed up a box of drinking water. Others got past by donating money.

Back in Balaroa, Mr Munif and other survivors filtering back to assess their losses found their neighbourhood unrecognisable.

Many were searching for missing relatives. Mr Munif fears his brother was trapped in the house when the quake struck. Both sad and angry, friends hugged and tried to lend one another the strength to continue.

Ms Hardrah, 44, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, came to search for her son's school graduation documents but found only ruins.

She was able to locate her house, but all that remained standing was a single wall.

Hardrah said she was home when the quake hit, but doesn't really know how she managed to flee to safety.

"When it was over, I only saw the ruins and houses collapsed on the ground," she said. "I'm still scared."

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