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Residents feared 'end of world' as liquefaction erased inland Indonesian villages

A residential area hit by the destructive power of liquefaction from a large earthquake is seen in the Balaroa district of Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, on Oct. 12, 2018. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Koizumi)

PALU, Indonesia -- Many people and homes were engulfed by mud from liquefied ground that flowed roughly 4 kilometers after a major earthquake hit this city in Central Sulawesi two weeks ago, residents say.

Those who narrowly survived all said that they were helpless in the face of the unimaginably destructive power of the mudflow. Nearly 5,000 victims are believed to remain buried in the mud, but authorities halted the search for bodies on Oct. 12 due to the difficult conditions.

Liquefaction struck two districts of the city of Palu, and in the village of Jono Oge in neighboring Sigi Regency. However, confirming accounts of residents, the phenomenon also occurred roughly 700 meters east of Jono Oge in the village of Pombewe, where the flow of mud is thought to have begun.

In Pombewe, numerous deep cracks have opened in the ground and there are hardly any buildings visible, though whether they were ploughed down by the mud flow is unclear.

At around 6 p.m. on Sept. 28, Jumaliana, 19, was about to take a bath when she felt the strong quake and ran from her house. "Just as I was thinking it was strange that the coconut trees had gotten further away, I noticed the ground was moving," she said. She caught sight of a man caught in the flow pleading for help, but her legs froze in fear and she was unable to move. The man then disappeared from her line of vision.

As the flow entered Jono Oge, it had grown in size, and more than 500 buildings in the town vanished in the mud. The main road running through the village was cut off, and the remains of a church along the street were later discovered some 2.5 kilometers away.

Maman Solikin, 42, who lived about 300 meters from the church, pulled his 7-year-old daughter who had lost her footing out of the mud as the eerie sound of the ground moving continued. Father and daughter were washed away atop a chunk of earth several meters square in size.

Destroyed paddies and deep cracks in the ground are visible in the Sigi Regency village of Pombewe, thought to be the origin of the mud flow caused by liquefaction after a large earthquake, in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, on Oct. 11, 2018. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Koizumi)

"I thought it was the end of the world. I heard voices calling for help, but all we could do was try to protect our own lives," Solikin recalled. "A man (in the mud flow) was trying to reach out desperately, but he was swallowed up while screaming, 'Allahu Akbar (God is greatest).'''

The mud flow stopped roughly five hours later in the village of Langaleso, and Solikin and his daughter, who had been swept along for some 3 kilometers, were rescued. The direct linear distance from the origin of the flow in Pombewe, through Jono Oge, to Langaleso is approximately 3.7 kilometers. In these three villages hit by the liquefaction, ground level differences reached up to 10 meters due to the mud flow.

Meanwhile, in the Balaroa district of Palu, over 1,000 structures were completely wiped out by the liquefaction there. Many residents said that the ground cracked open, swallowing people and houses, and the mud swirled in circles.

Awaluddin, 38, who had been at home watching television, said, "I felt the ground shake like it was going to explode, and my house sank 10 meters. There was no time for me to get away." Immediately afterward, as the ground swelled up again, he managed to escape. Those who survived were on the upper floors of their homes, and said they escaped along the roofs of sunken houses.

The number of confirmed deaths in the aftermath of the earthquake has reached 2,090 people as of Oct. 12.

"Liquefaction from an earthquake usually settles down after a short time," explained Susumu Yasuda, a professor emeritus of geotechnical engineering at Tokyo Denki University. "But this time appears to be different."

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Koizumi, Johannesburg Bureau)

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