Hundreds Die in Indonesia After Undersea EarthquakeEDAN, Indonesia, March 29 -- A major underwater earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island late Monday, killing hundreds of people and crushing buildings on a nearby resort island, according to Indonesian police.
Panicking residents raced to higher ground from the shoreline in Sumatra, fearing that a tsunami would be generated. A larger earthquake in the same region on Dec. 26 produced a tsunami that killed an estimated 280,000 people in eleven countries around the Indian Ocean. Tsunami warnings blared in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, which were hit in December, but no killer waves were produced.
The earthquake, with a magnitude of 8.7, triggered fires and devastated portions of Nias Island, a popular surfing destination 45 miles from the epicenter and 75 miles off the western coast of Sumatra. It ranks among the 10 biggest quakes since 1900, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Raymond Laia, a Catholic priest in the Nias town of Gunungsitoli, reported that a large fire was raging early Tuesday, according to the Missionary Service News Agency.
"From the window I see very high flames," the agency quoted Laia as saying. He spoke by telephone about two miles from the town center.
In Jakarta, about 800 miles to the southeast, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Tuesday he would fly to the stricken island. Vice President Jusuf Kalla said in a radio interview that the death toll on Nias could be between 1,000 and 2,000. He said he based his estimate on reports that 70 percent of buildings in the town had collapsed, rather than on confirmed deaths.
Indonesia's disaster center estimated Tuesday that about 1,000 people were killed on Nias, the Reuters news agency reported.
Police in Gunungsitoli also reported destruction and death. "About the victims, we cannot count them now," said Zulkifly Sirait, a police sergeant quoted by the Reuters news agency. "We only know there are many buildings flattened."
Nias, with a population of more than 600,000, was hit hard in the earlier quake, with 340 people reported killed and 10,000 left homeless.
Another police officer quoted by the Associated Press said rescuers were trying to pull people out of the rubble and that many were still panicking because of continuing aftershocks.
"We are busy now trying to pull people or bodies of children from the collapsed building," said the officer, Nainggolan, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. "It is very hard also because there is no power."
"The situation here is really messy," he said. "Aftershocks keep hitting every half hour, making thousands of people flee their homes and afraid to go home."
"It was a very violent earthquake," said Jonathan Evans, the Indonesia country director for Catholic Relief Services who was in Medan at the time. Evans said his group was still trying to charter an aircraft to take emergency equipment to Nias and evacuate the wounded. "We've gotten reports of serious loss of life and very damaged buildings in Gunungsitoli," he said in a telephone interview.
"People haven't rebuilt their lives from the last one; this is such a body blow for everyone living there," said Jude Barrand, of SurfAid International, a non-profit group providing tsunami relief to islands off the western coast of Sumatra, including Nias.
"We're getting reports that on the islands it may worse than December in terms of loss of life and infrastructure," Barrand said in a telephone interview from the Sumatran town of Padang. She said SurfAid, which was organized by surfers in 2000, was preparing a barge to take relief supplies to Nias and other nearby islands.
In Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province on Sumatra, people reported tremors that lasted several minutes and said power was lost for about 10 minutes. At least 106,000 people were killed in Aceh in the December tsunami.
Residents said they had been instructed in recent community briefings to seek higher ground if they felt a large earthquake. "If things happen, we have to leave," said Iwan, a security guard at a house in downtown Aceh who was reached by cell phone.
Refugees who still live in tents and temporary housing streamed along darkened Banda Aceh streets clogged with cars and motorbikes and fled to higher ground. Some cried and clutched children in their arms. Others sought shelter in mosques, which proved resistant in December when the ocean surged ashore.
"Where can I go? You can't outrun a tsunami," called out one man rushing into a mosque, the Associated Press reported.
The Monday quake "was the biggest I've ever felt," said Helene Barnes, regional manager for Asia and Pacific for Fauna & Flora International, an environmental group. But she said that no houses appeared to have collapsed in her area and that her colleagues in Calang on the western coast of Sumatra had reported no damage.
"Here in Banda Aceh, there have been a lot of people panicking. A lot of people running and walking and driving from the sea. It's not an organized evacuation, but lots of people were moving. I can hear lots more vehicles than normal," she said.
At 1:45 a.m., Indonesian Metro TV broadcast footage of a man with a megaphone shouting in Indonesian on the streets of Banda Aceh. "The situation has returned to normal," he announced. "The water is not rising. So you can all go back to your homes."
Governments in other countries issued warnings based on the possibility of a tsunami because of the quake's intensity.
Indian officials activated a disaster program early Tuesday and issued an advisory for eight coastal states, citing the "possibility of this earthquake triggering a tsunami." Dhirendra Singh, a Home Ministry official, said precautions were needed for six to eight hours after the quake. The advisories were dropped Tuesday morning when no tsunami developed.
While officials in Indian Ocean nations have discussed a satellite-based tsunami warning network, it has not yet been implemented. "Our biggest preparation is that there are no people on the coast," said Shivraj Patil, India's home minister. "We are asking people not to panic, but at the same time to be vigilant. Every earthquake does not convert into a tsunami."
Public address systems in the southern state of Tamil Nadu issued alerts and warned some coastal residents to move inland as a precaution. At Port Blair, in India's Andaman and Nicobar archipelago off the coasts of Thailand and Burma, officials said sea levels had not changed. Portions of the islands were devastated in the December tsunami.
Sri Lankan officials also held emergency meetings and broadcast warnings. Indian television reported incidents of panic along the Sri Lankan coast, with people fleeing their houses. Two people were reportedly killed in Sri Lanka during a panicky evacuation from the coast in a Tamil rebel-held area, the Associated Press reported.
In Thailand, officials issued advisories for southern regions where an estimated 5,300 people died in the December tsunami. "Please evacuate to higher places now," said Samith Dhammasaroj, a senior Thai official, in a radio broadcast.
Six Thai provinces were given evacuation orders, including Phuket island, a tourist location that had been luring visitors back with bargains.
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi and Yayu Yuniar in Medan contributed to this report.