1,234 People Dead, and Counting, as Indonesia Holds Mass Burials and Continues Search for Survivors

Evacuees preparing to board a military flight in Palu on Tuesday.
Adam Dean for The New York Times

Nathan, 17, had run to safety when a powerful earthquake struck his high school on Friday in Palu, on the island of Sulawesi. But he couldn’t resist going back to rescue his motorbike.

He died when he was hit by falling debris from the school’s Advent Church, which also was his home. It took three days for his uncle, the pastor, to find his body.

On the outskirts of Palu on Tuesday morning, Nathan’s mother, Ling Ling, lay on the freshly turned dirt of his grave and wailed. She clutched at his headstone. Fistfuls of brown earth slipped between her fingers.

“I’m broken,” she cried at the Poboya Indah cemetery as her husband tried to console her. “I have no hope anymore. Let me be the one to die. My life is useless.”

The cemetery on the eastern side of Palu has become a focal point for the city’s grief as it slowly tries to recover from the magnitude-7.5 quake and the devastating tsunami that it set off.

Officials said Tuesday that at least 1,234 people had died, including 120 foreigners. Others, still uncounted, lie in the rubble of ruined buildings or were swept away by the tsunami, which in some places reached a height of more than 20 feet. More than 1 million people live in the area affected by the dual disasters.

Nearly 6,400 personnel from an array of government agencies — including the military, the police, the national search-and-rescue agency and the Energy and Mineral Resources Department — were involved in efforts to find survivors, recover bodies and evacuate people from the stricken area, officials said.

More help and equipment were on the way, but the spokesman for Indonesia’s disaster management agency, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, told reporters that time was running out to find survivors alive.

“The team is racing against time because it’s already D+four,” he said, meaning four days since the day the quake struck on Friday.

With bridges down and roads destroyed, some heavily hit areas have been hard to reach, making it difficult to assess damage and provide assistance.

Rescuers and aid groups are particularly concerned about the Donggala district north of Palu and closer to the quake’s epicenter. It is home to about 280,000 people and has been largely cut off.

Photos and videos from the area show extensive destruction, including a large boat that was washed ashore by the tsunami and is now perched between two houses in the village of Wani 2.

“The damaged road is the main challenge to getting supplies into the areas that need them,” said Margarettha Siregar, emergency response director for World Vision in Indonesia. “Plus, there is a fuel shortage. The community is in despair so they are stopping the aid along the route. The route is full of people really in need of help.”

As hope for rescuing trapped survivors dwindled, family members turned to the heartbreak of burying those whose bodies had been found.

On Tuesday, four trucks loaded with the dead headed up the hill to the Poboya Indah cemetery in what has become a daily ritual. Fifty-four bodies were buried by morning, and more trucks were on their way. The day before, 153 were buried there.

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SOURCE: New York Times, Fira Abdurachman, Adam Dean and Richard C. Paddock