The death toll from Indonesia’s tsunami and volcano eruption rose to more than 400 today as more bodies were recovered.
Fisherman Joni Sageru said he was jolted awake by the powerful earthquake and ran with his neighbours to high ground, then watched as the sea first receded, then came roaring back “like a big wall” that swept away their entire village.
“Suddenly trees, houses and all things in the village were sucked into the sea and nothing was left,” he said in one of the first survivor accounts of the tsunami that slammed into islands off western Indonesia.
The tsunami death toll rose to 393 but hundreds of people were still missing. Harmensyah, head of the West Sumatra provincial disaster management centre, said rescue teams “believe many, many of the bodies were swept to sea”.
Along with the 33 people killed by the volcano that erupted on Tuesday more than 800 miles to the east in central Java, the number of dead from the twin disasters has now reached 426.
After a lull that allowed mourners to hold a mass burial for victims, Mount Merapi started rumbling again yesterday with three small eruptions and two others early today. There were no reports of new injuries or damage.
The catastrophes struck within 24 hours in different parts of the seismically active country, severely testing Indonesia’s emergency response network.
Aid workers trickling into the remote region found giant chunks of coral and rocks in places where homes once stood. Huge swathes of land were submerged.
In a rare bright spot, an 18-month-old baby was found alive in a clump of trees on Pagai Selatan – the same island where the 30-year-old Mr Sageru lived. Mr Harmensyah said a 10-year-old boy found the toddler, but his parents were dead.
More than 100 survivors crowded a makeshift medical centre in the main town of Sikakap on Pagai Utara – one of the four main islands in the Mentawai chain located between Sumatra and the Indian Ocean.
Some still wept for lost loved ones as they lay on straw mats or sat on the floor, waiting for medics to treat injuries such as cuts and broken limbs.
A young woman named Adek sobbed uncontrollably as she tried to talk about her year-old baby who was washed away.
One of the hardest-hit areas, with 65 dead, was the village of Pro Rogat, on Pagai Seatandug island.
Villagers there huddled under tarpaulins in the rain and told how many people who had fled to the hills were now too afraid to return home.
Officials say a multimillion-dollar tsunami warning system that uses buoys to detect sudden changes in water levels broke down a month ago because it was not being properly maintained.
The system was installed after the monster 2004 quake and tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.
But a German official at the project disputed there was a breakdown, saying Monday’s 7.7-magnitude quake’s epicentre was too close to the Mentawai islands for residents to get the warning before the killer wave hit.
“The early warning system worked very well – it can be verified,” said Joern Lauterjung, head of the German-Indonesia Tsunami Early Warning Project for the Potsdam-based GeoForschungs Zentrum.
He added that only one sensor of 300 had not been working and said that had no effect on the system’s operation.
At the Mount Merapi volcano, hot clouds of ash spewed from the mountain early today, according to Indonesian volcanology agency Subandriyo. A second blast occurred about two hours later.
The activity appeared to be easing pressure behind a lava dome that has formed in the crater, said Safari Dwiyono, a scientist who has been monitoring Merapi for 15 years.
“If the energy continues to release little by little like this, it reduces the chances of having a bigger, powerful eruption,” he said.