Paradise lost: Island that escaped tsunami destroyed by quake

CANDLES flickered at the heads of about 20 corpses, wrapped in white sheets on the street outside the Santa Maria church in the devastated town of Gunung Sitoli on Nias, the Indonesian isle known as a surfers’ paradise.

The mainly Roman Catholic islanders escaped almost unscathed from the December 26 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 126,000 in Indonesia’s Aceh province. But this time, they were not so lucky.

“It was stronger than the December 26 quake,” survivor Ebenezer said. “In one minute, everything was destroyed. No one had a chance to run.”

The powerful 8.7 tremor that hit an hour before midnight on Monday toppled every building in the main street of Gunung Sitoli, Nias’ biggest town with a population of 20,000. People dug through the rubble for loved ones or belongings as smoke from burning buildings hung in the air.

Indonesia’s Coordinating Agency for National Disaster Relief said rescuers recovered about 330 bodies yesterday. Four Swedish tourists were reported to be among the missing. Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla speculated the death toll could rise to 2,000. An Aceh provincial official said about 100 people also died on neighbouring Simeulue island.

Power was still out across the island last night as rescue workers, working by candles and flashlight continued to hunt for survivors.

Terrified residents huddled outside rather than sleep in their damaged homes - fearing an aftershock could topple them. About 13 shocks, from 5.0-6.1 magnitude, shook the island in the aftermath of the big tremor.

The earthquake - which occurred along the same fault line as the massive 9.0 magnitude tremor that caused the December 26 disaster - triggered panic in coastal communities from Indonesia to Thailand to Sri Lanka. But no waves materialised and tsunami alerts were withdrawn.

From the air, it appeared about 30% of buildings in Gunung Sitoli were destroyed, and there was significant damage in the island’s second biggest town, Teluk Dalam. Survivors were seen weeping over the sarong-covered bodies of a child and a middle-aged woman. Two men on a motorbike carried what appeared to be a body wrapped in sarongs.

The St Stephen’s Day disaster killed at least 174,000 people in 11 countries and left 1.5 million homeless.

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