The death toll from an earthquake and tsunami that devastated part of the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia has risen to over 1,400 – with the total number expected to climb higher still.
The tsunami, which was triggered after a magnitude-7.5 earthquake, ripped through the Pacific Ring of Fire and crashed into the city of Palu at 500mph, causing widespread destruction into the evening on Friday.
Figures collected by the National Police Headquarters put the number killed at 1,203 people. The death toll is expected to climb even higher. Search and rescue team have struggled to reach cut-off communities feared wiped out by the disaster.
As many as 200 people are feared buried under the debris of just one residential complex in the Palu, which has also been hit by deadly ‘liquefaction’ of the ground where tremors turn layers of sand and soil in to mush creating a sink hole effect.
In the same city, looters have been seen risking their lives stealing items from the collapsed shell of a shopping mall
Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said access to Donggala, as well as the towns of Sigi and Boutong, is still limited and there are no comprehensive reports from those areas.
Government officials said rescuers could hear screams from within the rubble of several buildings on Saturday evening as they battled through the night and into Sunday to free those trapped.
‘The death is believed to be still increasing since many bodies were still under the wreckage while many have not able to be reached,’ Nugroho said.
Fears are mounting for the the fishing town of Donggala, which was closer to the epicentre of the quake, but which rescuers have not been able to reach.
The town of Mamuju was also severely affected but currently impossible to access due to damaged roads and disrupted telecommunications.
Meanwhile criticisms have been levelled at the country’s geophysics agency for lifting the tsunami warning 34 minutes after it was first issued, which may have led to confusion and exacerbated the death toll.
Many of those killed in Palu were swept away by giant waves more than 20ft high as they played on the beach in the scenic tourist town.
The number of casualties was no doubt increased by the fact that hundreds of people had descended on Palu’s beach for a festival to celebrate the city’s anniversary, due to start Friday night.
TV footage showed images of destroyed houses in Donggala and areas that were once land now inundated with water. Aerial video also showed the battered coastline surrounding Palu.
Looters were stealing from a badly damaged shopping centre in Palu that was not being guarded. They did not appear to be concerned about their safety, despite ongoing aftershocks and the structure’s questionable stability.
Residents were also seen returning to their destroyed homes, picking through waterlogged belongings, trying to salvage anything they could find.