Scores of people feared dead in Indonesia’s tsunami disaster zone have been found alive as rescue workers spread out to remote island communities five days after the killer wave.
The discovery came as Indonesia struggled with disaster on two fronts following another powerful eruption of the archipelago’s most active volcano, which spread chaos and ash over a vast area of central Java.
On the tsunami-hit Mentawai island chain off the coast of Sumatra, rescue workers battling rough seas and monsoon rain found 135 people hiding on high ground, too scared of another wave to return to their shattered villages.
“We’re so grateful that we’ve found many of the missing people – we’d been working very hard to find them,” disaster management official Joskamatir said.
Officials had held little hope of finding many of the missing after flights over the area earlier in the week revealed dozens of unclaimed bodies strewn across beaches and wedged in rubble.
Many of the dead were also believed to have been sucked out to sea as the killer wave receded.
The number of missing was almost halved from 298 to 163 following the discovery, while the death count remained at 413, according to an official tally.
Rescue workers were reaching some of the isolated coastal villages crushed by the wall of water which was triggered on Monday by a 7.7-magnitude earthquake, but monsoon weather was slowing the relief effort.
“Before help came I survived by eating whatever we could find, such as taro,” said Theopilus, 42, a farmer on the worst-hit island of South Pagai.
“We’re in dire need of more food, tents and blankets. I feel really cold at night as it rains all the time.”
On North Pagai, dazed and hungry survivors of Monday night’s tsunami were still roaming between devastated villages looking for food and lost loved ones.
A baby was born in a crammed medical clinic as a man died of his wounds just a few beds away.
Another ship bearing badly need supplies such as tents, medicine and food arrived at Sikakap on the protected side of North Pagai island, while helicopters dropped aid packages to cut-off villages.
In central Java, 1,300 kilometres to the south-east, terrified residents fled in panic when Mount Merapi erupted again just after midnight (local time), fearing a repeat of explosions on Tuesday that claimed at least 30 lives.
No-one was killed in the latest eruption, but hospital staff reported that two people had died in the chaotic rush to escape.
“I was sleeping on the verandah when loud booms like thunder woke me up,” local resident Kris Budianto, 51, said. He suffered a broken arm and facial wounds when he crashed his motorbike in the melee.
Volcanic ash rained down on the Central Java provincial capital of Yogyakarta 26 kilometres away from the crater, shutting the airport for over an hour.
Government volcanologist Subandrio said more eruptions were likely and warned about 50,000 people who have been evacuated from the danger zone not to tempt fate by going home too soon.
“We will even have to evaluate whether we need to widen the exclusion zone because we should not downplay the threat – Mount Merapi is extremely dangerous,” he said.
Australia and the United States have pledged aid worth a total of $3 million while the European Commission released 1.5 million euros ($2 million) for victims of both disasters.