Search called off in Sulawesi for victims of Indonesian quake and tsunami

Rescue teams use an excavator to search for a body in the ruins of a house at Balaroa village in Palu on Oct 11, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PALU, INDONESIA (AFP, REUTERS) - Indonesian authorities on Thursday (Oct 11) called off the search for thousands still believed to be missing since a powerful 7.4-magnitude earthquake and tsunami devastated Palu city in Sulawesi island a fortnight ago.

"The search and rescue (SAR) operation for the victims will end this Thursday afternoon," SAR field director in Palu, Bambang Suryo, told AFP.

On the west coast of Sulawesi, the official death toll from the Sept 28 earthquake and tsunami stood at 2,045.

Some 10,000 rescuers toiled for a final day as relatives of the missing clung to their last hopes that the bodies of their loved ones could be found and given a proper burial.

"I don't have any tears left, all I want is to find them," said Ahmad, 43, a farmer who was waiting near a pile of debris that used to be home in Palu's Balaroa neighbourhood. His wife and two daughters are missing in the ruins.

Balaroa and other Palu neighbourhoods were devastated by liquefaction, which happens when a quake shakes soft, damp soil, turning it into a viscous, roiling liquid.

Ahmad's third daughter was badly injured and had been taken to the city of Makassar for treatment.

"She's all I have left. Everything I own, everyone else, is gone," he said.


No one knows how many people have yet to be found in Balaroa and other neighbourhoods, but it could be as many as 5,000, the national disaster mitigation agency says.

Rescue teams are working with residents to try to identify where victims could be. However, it is mostly guesswork because of how far the ground moved during liquefaction.

"We hope the families understand that there's very little hope at this point," said search volunteer Hadrianos Poliamar.

"At the same time, if they ask us to help, if they're pointing 'please look here, my family is under here', of course, we can't say 'no', we have to dig. We want to help as many as we can."

The government has called off the search for bodies from Thursday, citing concern about the spread of disease, and is beginning to focus efforts on the next phase - rebuilding.

Data on the destruction is being compiled and mapping done to help determine where new houses should be built.

The danger of tsunamis near the coast in the north of Palu and of soil liquefaction in the south are the major worries.

Areas hit by liquefaction will be turned into parks, sports fields and memorials.

Mr Nofal Surya, 37, lost 15 members of his extended family in Balaroa. The bodies of only seven have been found.

"If I follow my heart, of course I want the search to keep going. But I think I have to accept that I may never find them," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.