Padang, West Sumatra. The death toll from a tsunami that pummeled the remote Mentawai Islands was expected to pass 500, an official said Thursday, as hopes faded for hundreds of people still missing after a huge wave triggered by a powerful earthquake hit off the west coast of Sumatra.
At least 343 people are confirmed dead with 338 still missing. Disaster management official Ade Edward said the toll would climb possibly by as much as 200.
“Of those missing people we think two-thirds of them are probably dead, either swept out to sea or buried in the sand,” Ade said.
The North Pagai subdistrict was the worst hit by the three-meter-high waves, triggered by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake 70 kilometers west of the islands on Monday evening.
Surung M Sinaga, coordinator for the West Sumatra Disaster Relief Agency, said that at least 88 bodies had been found in the village of Muntel Baru and 75 more had been uncovered in the village of Sabeugunggung.
“We expect the death toll to rise, now that it is day four into the tragedy. Chances of finding them alive are fast becoming slimmer,” Surung said.
Surung said it was likely that some of the victims were swept into the Indian Ocean while the remainder were believed to be trapped under piles of rubble.
Meanwhile, the death toll in all four villages in the subdistrict of South Pagai climbed to 140 on Thursday with 57 people missing.
The disaster left as many as 179 buildings and homes destroyed. The number of evacuees in the area swelled to 4,000 families, most too traumatized to return to their homes.
Search and rescue teams — kept away for days by stormy seas and bad weather — found roads and beaches with swollen corpses lying on them, according to Harmensyah, head of the West Sumatra provincial disaster management center.
Some workers wore face masks as they wrapped corpses in black body bags on North Pagai, one of the four main islands in the Mentawai chain located between Sumatra and the Indian Ocean.
Huge swaths of land were underwater and houses lay crumpled with tires and slabs of concrete piled on the surrounding sand.
“Ten minutes after the quake we heard a sound just like an explosion from outside — it was then we realized there was a tsunami,” said Chandra, a 20-year-old housewife on North Pagai.
Dazed and exhausted, she was searching for her 6-month-old baby boy, who has not been seen since the disaster struck.
Her husband’s body was found by locals and buried along with dozens of other villagers in a mass grave on Wednesday.
“I know [my baby is] dead but I keep praying he’s still alive. I’m so tired. I’ve not eaten for two days,” she said.
Chandra said she was separated from her husband and son as they were trying to flee the tsunami when it struck their coastal village.
“I survived because a coconut tree fell and kept me from being swept away. My survival was a miracle from God,” she said.
An Agence France-Presse photographer who came to North Pagai aboard an aid ship saw hundreds of villagers being treated at a medical clinic, many requiring stitches for wounds suffered as they were tossed around in the roiling sea.
Like Chandra, dozens of villagers are still trying to come to terms with the tragedy.
Many scrabbled through rubble to look for missing relatives while others, dazed by the disaster, sat under coconut trees awaiting news from rescuers.
Chandra said she did not know what the future holds.
“I’ve no intention to rebuild my house. I now live alone, I don’t know what to do,” she said.
“Whatever happens, I’m not going to leave this village. This place is the burial place for my husband and baby.”