The official toll is 844 after a massive earthquake and accompanying tsunami hit the central island of Sulawesi on Friday evening, but the number is expected to go much higher.
MAKASSAR, Indonesia – The pilot was preparing to take off on that remarkably clear, windy Friday evening. He had a bad feeling.
Ricosetta Mafella, the 44-year-old pilot of Batik Airlines flight 6231, told his first officer who had stopped to take photos of the scenic Palu beachfront to hurry back on the aircraft.
“I told them to do everything quick, I said let’s go,” said Mafella in an interview with The Washington Post. The door closed, and he started the plane moving at 5:52 p.m. local time, three minutes before the scheduled departure time for a flight that’s usually a bit late.
“Batik 6231 runway 33 clear for take off,” came the calm voice of the air traffic controller, 21-year old Anthonius Gunawan Agung, as Mafella taxied off the runway minutes ahead of schedule. The pilot did not realize that just as his wheels lifted just inches into the air, severe tremors from a 7.5 magnitude earthquake shook the ground causing massive cracks in the runway he had just departed and prompting the controller to jump from the tower as its roof was caving in.
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When he could no longer reach the controller as his plane climbed into the clouds, Mafella thought he might have left for evening prayers. But he noticed odd “circles” forming in the water below and thought: “Maybe there’s something wrong in Palu.”
The young air traffic controller was one of the hundreds, if not thousands, who died in twin disasters – a massive earthquake and accompanying tsunami – that hit the central island of Sulawesi on Friday evening.
Rescue officials acknowledged reports circulating that the death toll has reached 1,203, but said this was an “unofficial” count which includes estimates of hundreds of dead in two housing complexes. In one, in the area of Petobo, mud rose from the ground and then seemed to swallow up the building, said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman of Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency. The agency’s official death toll remains at 844.
Three days after the disaster, thousands remained homeless, in desperate need of everything from medicine to blankets and food and water. Hundreds were still unable to reach their loved ones, as bodies piled up at government offices and officials rushed to bury them for fear of disease.
The victim count so far has been based almost entirely on deaths in Palu city, and so the “number will definitely increase,” said Oxfam’s Country Director in Indonesia, Maria Lauranti.
In Palu city Radika Pinto, a spokesman for World Vision, said the situation remained dire. While some aid workers were beginning to reach areas along the coast, many remained cut off. Desperate residents rushed the mini market in search of food and water. The main fuel station has collapsed.
“It’s like chaos. People are looking for food in the streets and looking for fuel,” he said. “There’s a smell of dead bodies in that area.”
Husni, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Indonesia who like many Indonesians only goes by one name, said that volunteers from his team discovered 36 bodies on Monday morning buried in debris and mud in a village in Sigi, south of Palu city. The Red Cross has sent about a 100 volunteers to Palu and is distributing clean drinking water through 20 water trucks, but were still unable to reach many affected areas.
On Sunday night, Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo authorized foreign aid. Nugroho said in a briefing Monday afternoon that they have “not asked” but are receiving assistance from countries that have offered it. At least 10 countries have offered assistance, including Australia and the United States.
Indonesian military transport planes, which have been shuttling people and aid in and out of the area, have so far been overwhelmed by demand.
In fact, many Indonesians are trying to get into the disaster area so they can get aid to family members and see if they are alive.
In Makassar, some 515 miles south of Palu, hundreds of people crowded the gates at a dilapidated airfield before dawn on Monday hoping for a seat on those military transport planes ferrying relatives, rescue workers and supplies north. Pickup trucks filled with packets of instant noodles, crates of eggs and boxes of bottled water donated from local charities clogged the road leading to the runway.
Some residents of Palu, desperate to return home, spread tarps and cardboard boxes on the ground waiting for an official with a loud speaker to call their names and allow them to board. Others, after hours of waiting, abandoned the idea and dragged their luggage with them as they resorted to driving the 20 some hours north instead.
Bismark Faldorama, 28, who is from Palu, arrived at the airfield on Saturday night from a nearby island where he works, he said, and immediately put his name on the list to board a military plane home.
He sat with two mobile phones, attempting, unsuccessfully, to contact his family members who he had not spoken to since the disaster.
“I decided to come here and look for myself,” he said. “I hope there’s a way.”
Nearby, Veronika, 35, waited next to boxes of supplies she hoped to take with her back to Palu. She was traveling to Jakarta for work and was meant to return home on Thursday, but was delayed. Since the earthquake and tsunami occurred she had not heard from her husband or two young sons – ages three and four.
Her village of Petobo was completely destroyed by the earthquake, according to local media reports.and photos which show it almost flattened, debris strewn everywhere. The earthquake happened around the time of evening prayers and she suspected her husband would have been without his phone.
“My home is not there anymore,” she said. “I don’t know anything about my family.”
In Malaysia for training, Mafella, the pilot, believes he and his 145 passengers cheated death.
“If I were late by 30 seconds, it could have been a different story,” he said. “The shake . . . would have thrown my plane away from the runway.”
The air traffic controller, he added, was his “guardian angel.”
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Matani reported from Hong Kong and The Washington Post’s Ainur Rohmah contributed to this report from Jakarta, Indonesia.