The first survivors from the coastal region of Meulaboh were airlifted yesterday to the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, where they described a horrendous scene in which floodwaters...
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — The first survivors from the coastal region of Meulaboh were airlifted yesterday to the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, where they described a horrendous scene in which floodwaters covered a vast swath of land and probably killed 40,000 of the region’s 120,000 people.
They arrived with stories of being at sea for days and surviving by clinging naked to the minaret of a mosque. It was another grim detail of one of the worst natural disasters in modern history. The death toll yesterday stood at more than 119,000 from Sunday’s earthquake and tsunami that struck nations lining the Indian Ocean. At least 80,000 of those were from Indonesia. And there was still no clear picture of the death toll and conditions in some remote villages or on islands off India and Indonesia.
Meulaboh had been cut off since Sunday because bridges on roads leading to Banda Aceh, 300 miles to the north, were washed out. One of those evacuated by air, 31-year old Epayani, said thousands of corpses have been piled up by soldiers who survived the disaster.
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“Meulaboh has become like an ocean,” said Epayani, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. “It is completely destroyed.”
Another group of survivors evacuated by helicopter from Kecamatan Lhoong, 30 miles south of Banda Aceh, said that 24 of 28 villages in the area were destroyed, killing more than 9,000 of the 12,000 people who lived there.
The reports from Sumatra’s isolated west coast added to the rapidly increasing death toll in Indonesia.
Mike Griffiths, a New Zealand environmentalist who is active in efforts to preserve northern Sumatra, flew over the coast and videotaped the destruction. In addition to the damage in Meulaboh, he said four towns, each with about 10,000 people, were wiped out, except for one where about 30 survivors were camped on a hill.
Epiyani, exhausted by her ordeal, recounted a remarkable story of the family’s survival.
Like other witnesses to the tsunami, she described a series of six waves. The first one was the largest, about 15 feet high, she said. As the first wave came roaring into the city, she said, all five family members quickly climbed up trees to safety on the roof of their house.
When the second wave hit, her 9-year-old son, Wira, fell off the roof and grabbed a cupboard that was floating by. When the cupboard began sinking, he clambered onto a mattress. The mattress floated away and he quickly became separated from the family. He spent two days drifting in the floodwaters before soldiers rescued him.
The third wave demolished the house. Epayani’s husband, Aliman Hapri, 38, was washed away and spent the next day floating in the sea. He was struck in the leg by a piece of wood. He has since developed gangrene and is in danger of losing the limb.
Epayani tried to stay with her other two children, Pardi, 10, and Nora, 9, but they were separated by the waves. Remarkably, the sixth big wave brought the three back together near a mosque and they were able to cling to the minaret.
The waves had torn off their clothes and they were naked when soldiers rescued them.
For the next three days, the family lived in appalling conditions, like the other survivors. They had nothing to eat and were drinking the river water without boiling it because they had no pots or stoves.
“For three days the children were crying, asking for food,” she said.
Conditions were little better in Banda Aceh, where thousands of survivors and refugees are living under plastic sheets and struggling to find food and water.
“How are we going to live?” asked Darmidi, a 43-year old fisherman, as his wife washed their 2-year-old son in a bucket. “We have nothing anymore.”
The island’s battered infrastructure means it could be weeks before refugees begin receiving the food and medicine piling up in warehouses at the city’s airport.
The disaster took out scores of roads, bridges and communication links, while gasoline and food are scarce. Many of those killed would have been key to the relief efforts: doctors, police officers and government servants.
“Everything here has collapsed,” said Brig. Gen. Achmad Hiayat, surgeon general of Indonesia’s Armed Forces. “Even the government has collapsed. The hospitals, medical services are in disarray.”
The hundreds of bodies that lie uncollected in Banda Aceh are the starkest example of the breakdown in government services. The stench is oppressive in the tropical heat. Soldiers using stretchers made from sacks and scrap wood have begun clearing the city’s narrow market area, where thousands of bodies were pushed by the raging floodwaters.
Darmidi, who goes by a single name, lives in front of a partially destroyed shop in the center of Banda Aceh. He and his family are existing on handouts from an Islamic political party and the kindness of passers-by.
Thousands of refugees huddle in temporary camps or in mosques or public buildings. Some have chosen to remain in their heavily damaged houses, fearing looters.
Nealry every refugee in Banda Aceh is mourning the loss of a spouse or child, with some telling of losing whole families.
Mohammed Akhiar has spent four days searching for the body of his 12-year-old son, who was playing football with his friends on a beach when the tsunami hit.
“He was such a creative boy, and clever, too,” he said. “His teacher said he was destined to be a success.”
Boats unloaded refugees in Banda Aceh from two small islands off the tip of Sumatra yesterday. They describe horrific scenes in which upward of 6,000 people were killed, figures that were impossible to confirm.
“It’s like a scene from hell,” said one refugee, Achmad.