Candles flickered at the heads of about 20 corpses, lying in the street wrapped in white sheets outside the Santa Maria church in the devastated main town on Nias, the Indonesian isle known as a surfers' paradise.
The mainly Roman Catholic islanders escaped almost unscathed from the St Stephen's Day earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 126,000 in Indonesia’s Aceh province three months ago.
But this time, they were not so lucky.
“It was stronger than the December 26 quake,” survivor Ebenezer said today. “In one minute, everything was destroyed. No one had a chance to run.”
The extremely powerful magnitude 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.
Budi Atmaji Adiputro, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Coordinating Agency for National Disaster Relief, said rescuers recovered about 330 bodies today.
Four Swedish tourists were reported to be among the missing Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla speculated that the number 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 tonight as rescue workers working by candles and flashlight continued to hunt through smouldering rubble for survivors in flattened buildings. Electricity cables lay tangled in the street.
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 hospital is desperate. It had a tough night,” said Peter Scott-Bowden of the World Food Programme. “They are short of supplies.”
British aid agency Oxfam was among the first to get a team on the island.
Team member Alessandra Villas-Boas said: “The devastation was obvious as soon as we landed. Many of the houses have collapsed.
“The collapse of the water system in Gunung Sitoli has left 20,000 people without access to clean drinking water. Unless we get a water supply back up and running, disease could break out and more lives could be lost.
“Tomorrow we’ll begin to fly in emergency supplies so we can get clean water and basic supplies to people.”
Helicopters evacuated 17 critically wounded survivors to the main island of Sumatra for treatment to head or chest injuries and internal bleeding.
The quake night sparked panic and fears of a second devastating tsunami in countries around the Indian Ocean lashed by killer waves on December 26, but no waves materialised and governments that initially warned their citizens to flee to high ground later withdrew their alerts.
From the air, it appeared that about 30% of buildings in Gunung Sitoli were destroyed, and there was significant damage in the island’s second biggest town, Teluk Dalam.
In Jakarta, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono sent condolences to the families of the dead and said Indonesia had been offered help from around the world. “We welcome and highly appreciate it,” he said.
The earthquake – which occurred along the same tectonic 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.
Residents fled to higher ground when the alarm was raised, before hearing hours later that no tsunami materialised.
In Sri Lanka, warning sirens blared along the nation’s east coast and President Chandrika Kumaratunga urged people to evacuate.
“It was like reliving the same horror of three months ago,” said Fatheena Faleel, who fled her home with her three children.
Dave Jenkins, a New Zealand physician who runs the relief agency SurfAid International in western Sumatra, said he feared for about 10,000 people living on the tiny Banyak Islands, close to the quake’s epicentre. By tonight, contact still had not been made with the islands.
The St Stephen's Day disaster killed at least 174,000 people in 11 countries, left more than 100,000 missing and rendered 1.5 million homeless.
Seismologists said the epicentre of Monday’s earthquake was about 175 miles north of Nias. It was felt as far away as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.