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Indonesia Earthquake Toll Rises to 84, Medics Overwhelmed by Casualties

Rescuers use an excavator to dig through a damaged hospital building to search for survivors following an earthquake in Mamuju, West Sulawesi province, Indonesia, January 15, 2021 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Akbar Tado/ via REUTERS

Rescuers use an excavator to dig through a damaged hospital building to search for survivors following an earthquake in Mamuju, West Sulawesi province, Indonesia, January 15, 2021 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Akbar Tado/ via REUTERS

At least 84 were killed and thousands left homeless by the 6.2-magnitude quake that struck early Friday, reducing buildings to a tangled mass of twisted metal and chunks of concrete in the seaside city of Mamuju.

Medics battled exhaustion and the risk of Covid-19 as they raced Monday to treat scores of people injured by a devastating earthquake on Indonesia's Sulawesi island.

At least 84 were killed and thousands left homeless by the 6.2-magnitude quake that struck early Friday, reducing buildings to a tangled mass of twisted metal and chunks of concrete in the seaside city of Mamuju.

Doctors in hazard suits treated patients with broken limbs and other injuries at a makeshift medical centre set up outside the only one of the city's hospitals that survived relatively intact -- one was flattened by the violent tremor.

A handful of doctors and nurses worked "non-stop" in the first couple of days after the quake until reinforcements arrived, but it was still barely enough amid shortages of medicine and other supplies.

"We were completely overwhelmed at one point," said Indahwati Nursyamsi, director of West Sulawesi General Hospital.

"My nurses were also quake victims and had to help their families."

Medics scrambled to quarantine Covid-19 positive patients in a bid to prevent an outbreak at the crowded open-air triage centre.

Some with coronavirus have been put in a prayer room -- common in the Muslim majority nation -- at the back of the hospital.

The hospital was trying to open up more rooms for surgery and erect additional tents outside to treat the injured.

But fears that another quake could bring down the building added to the challenges as patients, and some staff, refused to stay inside.

"There are patients who were scared and pleaded to be taken out of the building," Nursyamsi said.

Nurse Agriani, 29, who came from a nearby district to help, said she had been working day and night.

"It's tiring... but it's part of my job as a nurse," said the woman, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

'Still trapped'

It was unclear how many people -- dead or alive -- could be buried under mountains of debris, as rescuers rushed to find survivors more than three days after the disaster.

Most of the 84 dead were found in Mamuju, but some bodies were also recovered south of the city of 110,000 people in West Sulawesi province.

At least 18 people had been pulled out of the rubble alive, including a pair of young sisters, according to official data.

Police began using sniffer dogs to help in the search at a badly damaged hospital, as body bags were filled with recovered corpses.

"There are probably some people still trapped under the rubble," search and rescue agency spokesman Yusuf Latif said earlier Monday.

Meanwhile, about 30,000 people have taken refuge at dozens of makeshift shelters -- many little more than makeshift tarpaulin tents filled with whole families.

They said they were running low on food, blankets and other aid, as emergency supplies were rushed to the hard-hit region.

Friday's tremor triggered panic among residents of the island, which was hit by a 2018 quake-tsunami that killed thousands.

Many survivors of the latest disaster were unable to return to their destroyed homes, or were too scared to go back, fearing a tsunami sparked by aftershocks, common after strong earthquakes.

Hundreds have already fled camps in hard-hit Majene as rumours of a quake-tsunami rippled through a shelter there.

"We were confused and couldn't check if that was true because there wasn't any Internet at the shelter," said Ernawati, 38, who fled to a town more than 100 kilometres away with a dozen relatives.

Fear of another disaster was certain to heap more stress on survivors, said Jan Gelfand, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Indonesia.

"The physical impact of this earthquake is terrifying, but we must not underestimate the debilitating psychological effect this disaster is having on tens of thousands of people who fled their homes," he said.

"They are living with the constant threat of another big quake."

Neighbouring Polewali Mandar Regency said it was equipping a local sports stadium to accommodate a possible influx of displaced people.

Indonesia, a Southeast Asian archipelago of nearly 270 million, has been hit by a series of natural disasters this week, including deadly landslides, flooding and a pair of volcanic eruptions.

The country experiences frequent seismic and volcanic activity due to its position on the Pacific "Ring of Fire", where tectonic plates collide.

On December 26, 2004, a massive 9.1-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra, triggering a tsunami that killed 220,000 throughout the region, including 170,000 in Indonesia -- among the worst recorded disasters in history.

first published:January 18, 2021, 18:15 IST