At least 384 people are confirmed dead and 540 are injured after a tsunami, caused by two earthquakes in quick succession, ripped through the Pacific Ring of Fire and crashed into an Indonesian coast city on Friday.
Indonesian media, citing the national disaster agency, said Saturday that almost 400 people had died in Palu City alone, on the the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
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.
Many of those killed in Palu were swept away by giant waves more than 10ft 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.
‘When the (tsunami) threat arose yesterday, people were still doing their activities on the beach and did not immediately run and they became victims,’ Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman of Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency BNPB said in news briefing in Jakarta.
Some people climbed trees to escape the tsunami and survived, Nugroho said.
The first earthquake was of 6.1 magnitude and hit Indonesia’s densely populated region on Friday morning, quickly followed by even fiercer 7.5 magnitude tremors which caused the terrifying waves.
The National Disaster Mitigation Agency warned early on of reports showing that ‘victims died in the rubble of a collapsed building’.
Dramatic video footage filmed from the top floor of a parking ramp spiral in Palu and posted on Twitter, showed a the enormous wall of whitewater crashing into houses along the shoreline, scattering shipping containers and flattening the city’s mosque.
Nugroho said there was ‘extensive’ damage to houses, hospitals, shopping malls and hotels. A bridge has crumbled away and the main highway to Palu has been cut due to a landslide.
Palu, which has a population of more than 380,000 people, was strewn with debris from collapsed buildings on Saturday.
The city is built around a narrow bay that apparently magnified the force of the tsunami waters as they raced into the tight inlet.
The mosque heavily damaged by the quake was half submerged and a shopping mall was reduced to a crumpled hulk.
Bodies lay partially covered by tarpaulins and a man carried a dead child through the wreckage.
It is thought thousands of buildings have been damaged, with some entirely swept away or demolished, leaving scores of families still missing among the debris.
Strong aftershocks continued to rock Palu on Saturday morning.
Photographs from the city on the coast of Sulawesi island showed bodies being lined up along the street, some in bags and others with their faces covered with clothes.
Bodies of some victims were found trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings, Nugroho said.
Injured people were being treated in makeshift medical tents set up outdoors and in the hallways of hospitals.
Indonesia’s meteorological and geophysics agency BMKG issued a tsunami warning after the first quake, but lifted it 34 minutes later.