PADANG, Indonesia (AP) — Planes and helicopters delivering rescuers, medicine and other supplies landed for the first time Wednesday on remote Indonesian islands that were pounded by a 10-foot (3-meter) tsunami, sweeping away villages and killing at least 154 people.
For days, rough seas and bad weather have hampered relief operations, leaving residents to fend for themselves. With not enough people to dig graves, corpses littered beaches and roads, according to district chief, Edison Salelo Baja. Fisherman were scouring waters in search of survivors.
The fault line that ruptured Monday on Sumatra island’s coast also caused the 2004 quake and monster Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.
Disaster officials were still trying to reach more than a dozen villages on the hardest hit Mentawai islands — a popular surfer’s destination that is usually reachable only by a 12-hour boat ride.
But they were preparing for the worst Wednesday, with hundreds of body bags being sent to the scene, said Mujiharto, who heads the Health Ministry’s crisis center.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, meanwhile, cut short a state visit to Vietnam to deal with two major disasters that struck Indonesian in less than 24 hours. The country’s most volatile volcano, Mount Merapi, 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) to the east, erupted at dusk Tuesday, sending up searing ash clouds and killing at least 28 people, including an old man who was considered the mountain’s spiritual gate-keeper.
The two events were not related, but they both fell along Indonesia’s portion of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, a series of fault lines that are prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.
“I want to make sure the emergency response has been running well,” Yudhoyono, a former four-star general, told reporters in Hanoi. “I want to see for myself the condition of the victims.”
The 7.7-magnitude quake that struck late Monday just 13 miles (20 kilometers) beneath the ocean floor was followed by at least 14 aftershocks, the largest measuring 6.2.
Harmensyah, who heads the West Sumatra provincial disaster management center, said the number of people killed in the tsunami had climbed to 154 and more than 400 others were missing.
The first cargo plane loaded down with 16 tons of tents, medicine, food and clothes arrived Wednesday afternoon, said Ade Edward, a disaster official. Four helicopters also had landed in Sikakap, a town on North Pagai island, which will be the center of relief operations.
“Finally we have a break in the weather,” he said, adding that he hoped search and rescue operations would finally pick up pace. “We have a chance now to look for the missing from the sky and also to survey the extent of the damage.”
Officials say hundreds of wooden and bamboo homes were washed away on the island of Pagai, with water flooding crops and roads up to 600 yards (meters) inland. In Muntei Baru, a village on Silabu island, 80 percent of the houses were badly damaged.
Those and other islets hit were part of the Mentawai island chain, 175 miles (280 kilometers) from Sumatra.
Eight Australian survivors, and American and a New Zealander arrived in the Sumatran city of Padang on Wednesday, recounting their harrowing encounter with the tsunami.
They said they were on the back deck of their anchored boat, the ‘MV Midas,’ when the wall of water smashed them into a neighbouring vessel, triggering a fire that quickly ripped through their cabin.
“They hit us directly in the side of the boat, piercing a fuel tank,” said Daniel North, the American crew member. “Almost immediately, the captain gave the order to abandon ship and everyone got off the boat.”
They clung to surfboards, fenders — anything that floated — as they washed in the wetlands and then climbed the highest trees they could find and waited for more than 90 minutes until they felt safe.
Ade Edward, a disaster management agency official, said crews from a tourist boat were found safe after more than 24 hours missing in the Indian Ocean, including up to nine foreigners.
Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini and Irwan Firdaus contributed to this report.