Sulawesi quake: 'The ground opened up and swallowed people'

An aerial view of Petobo sub-district following an earthquake in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, on Oct 2, 2018.

PALU (CENTRAL SULAWESI) - Like in the movies, the ground opened up and "swallowed" people, said Ms Wulansari.

"It was like a giant worm chasing us underground... The last time I saw my sister, I could only see her head. Neck down, she was in the moving mud," the 18-year-old student told The Straits Times at a shelter on a windy hill near the remnants of her village in Central Sulawesi.

Petobo, on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Palu, has been dubbed the sunken village after 700 houses were destroyed, mostly buried after a 7.4-magnitude earthquake struck the region last Friday (Sept 28). More than 1,200 people were killed as a result of the quake and devastating tsunami that followed in its trail. The death toll is expected to rise.

Surviving residents in Petobo said the massive tremor felt like a creature was moving underground as they fled for their lives. Some were flung several metres up into the air as the ground thrust out under their feet, or watched helplessly as their neighbours drowned in fast flowing mud, never to be seen again.

"I held on to a log of wood with my right hand, while my left hand was paddling to stay afloat. That lasted for several minutes, and my clothes were torn off in the process. I was nearly naked when I was finally rescued," said Ms Sunarti, who like many Indonesians go by a single name. Three of her neighbours who struggled close to her did not make it.

Another resident, Wahid, 40, likened his ordeal to being in a cup of coffee being stirred.

"It moved around from one point to another and another within our village," said Mr Wahid, who lost his grandparents and other relatives.

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"The ground rose as if it moved in a circle, then we saw flowing mud. This made people panic. The flowing mud took stones, sand and trees along with it," Mr Wahid added.

Mr Abas Ismail, 52, said he witnessed a mosque and his closest neighbour's house flung as high as the village's coconut trees before they were slammed back down.

"The ground moved like a wave, but the sound was more like pouring rain falling on 'seng'," said Mr Abas, referring to the galvanised iron sheet widely used in Sulawesi as roofing material for homes.

The tsunami that followed the earthquake did not swamp Petobo because it is too far inland, but that was little comfort for its residents since the area was hit by liquefaction, one of the most devastating effects of an earthquake.

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The New York Times, in explaining the phenomenon, said that in addition to causing soil to flow like a liquid, it also can make land slump and sink. But for it to occur, the soil must be relatively loose, must be waterlogged and must be shaken violently.

When The Straits Times visited the village, Mr Iwan Said, a 37-year-old civil servant who was a resident, said he found parts of his home a kilometre from the original location, along with those of his closest neighbour.

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Wednesday visited Petobo as he continued with a tour of the disaster-hit region to check on relief efforts.

"I come here today to check on the current real condition after I gave the orders four days ago related to evacuation (of bodies), power, fuel and logistics supplies, particularly the treatment for those injured by the disaster," the President was quoted as saying.

Relief officials, however, provided a grim assessment, saying the village had been "wiped off the map".

"They are finding devastation and tragedy everywhere," Ms Iris van Deinse, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a statement.

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