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Residents of Indonesian city searching desperate for loved ones after quake, tsunami

The square where the residents were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the city at the time of the earthquake is seen in Palu, in the central part of the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, on Oct. 1, 2018. The bridge that collapsed under the force of the tsunami is visible in the background. (Mainichi/Aya Takeuchi)
(Mainichi)

PALU, Indonesia -- Following the major Sept. 28 earthquake and tsunami that struck the island of Sulawesi, this city in the central part of the island near the epicenter had by Oct. 1 cleared the roads of debris, while rescue operations and the search for the missing were in motion. Meanwhile, many people could be seen walking along the coast, hoping to find friends and family.

When the earthquake hit at around 6 p.m., a public square along the coast was packed with residents celebrating the city's 40th anniversary.

"I didn't know that something like a tsunami warning had been issued. The people around me were all frightened by the earthquake, and just stayed put," recalled 48-year-old Arjuma, who had been with his wife at the square when the temblor struck. That was the last time he saw his wife, whose whereabouts are still unknown.

Arjuma was standing talking to a friend a little away from his wife when the earthquake and first tsunami struck. With no sign of her after the wave, he ran alone to the nearest TV tower. When the second wave hit, he had just gotten a hold on the structure.

Two women embrace as a missing family member is discovered in the rubble in Palu, in the central part of the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, on Oct. 1, 2018. (Mainichi/Aya Takeuchi)

Now, the scene of celebration that was the square is a picture of tragedy, the stage reduced to a warped skeleton, and wrecked cars and bikes belonging to the participants litter the area. The midsection of a nearby steel bridge was also torn away by the force of the waves.

Arjuma headed to the square the day after the tsunami, looking for his wife, but there was no information about her. Nothing remained of the food and drink stalls set up for the festivities. He lamented, "If only I could have found my wife in that moment and we had escaped together ..."

Nearby, residents who have found the bodies of family members used saws and shovels to clear debris. One woman watching over the work said, "It's difficult to search all the way below the rubble. I think the death toll will only continue to rise."

From the early morning on Oct. 1, many residents of Palu lined up for rations and gasoline. The roads into the disaster-hit area are slowly being cleared, but there is still not enough drinking water and other supplies at the city's evacuation centers, and looting has occurred in some areas.

On the afternoon of Sept. 30, a large number of people on motorbikes arrived at the Palu Grand Mall, shuttered since the disaster, and forced open shutters and broke windows to get into the shops. They used shopping carts to carry out loads of foodstuffs, clothing and other items. Two women were even seen taking cash from one of the registers.

At another supermarket, people pushed past security guards to get inside. According to local residents, some looters claim that there was no other way to get food or water.

Employees at a gas station bring gasoline up from the underground tank by hand to sell to residents in Palu, in the central part of the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, on Oct. 1, 2018. (Mainichi/Aya Takeuchi)

Still, on Oct. 1, things gradually began to return to normal. Where the day before people had just been taking whatever gasoline they could get from a station in Palu, residents instead began to line up around 5 a.m., and just after 7 a.m., it had grown into a roughly 200-meter queue. Each person was allowed up to 5 liters of the gasoline remaining from before the disaster, sold at a reduced price.

As power has yet to be restored to the area, the employees of the gas station climbed down into the underground tank, bringing the gasoline up by hand, container after container. Coming from nearby to the station while looking for family members, 42-year-old Yanti said, "I have to search for my missing daughter-in-law, and I need gasoline for that," a desperate look on her face.

(Japanese original by Aya Takeuchi, Jakarta Bureau)

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