Death toll from tsunami, volcano in Indonesia tops 400

Soldiers carry the coffin of a victim of Mount Merapi’s eruption during a mass burial Thursday in Indonesia. Mount Merapi, in central Java, rumbled again, but no new casualties were reported. 

Associated Press

Soldiers carry the coffin of a victim of Mount Merapi’s eruption during a mass burial Thursday in Indonesia. Mount Merapi, in central Java, rumbled again, but no new casualties were reported. 

MENTAWAI ISLANDS, Indonesia — The fisherman was jolted awake by the powerful earthquake and ran with his screaming neighbors to high ground. He said they watched as the sea first receded and then came roaring back "like a big wall" that swept away their entire village.

"Suddenly, trees, houses and all things in the village were sucked into the sea, and nothing was left," Joni Sageru recalled Thursday in one of the first survivor accounts of Monday's tsunami that slammed into islands off western Indonesia.

The death toll rose to 399 as officials found more bodies, although hundreds of people remained missing. Harmensyah, head of the West Sumatra provincial disaster management center, said rescue teams "believe many, many of the bodies were swept to sea."

With the 33 people killed by a volcano that erupted Tuesday more than 800 miles to the east in central Java, the number of dead from the twin disasters was well over 400. Mount Merapi began rumbling again Thursday after a lull that allowed mourners to hold a mass burial for its victims. There were no reports of new casualties.

The catastrophes struck within 24 hours in different parts of the seismically active country.

Aid workers trickling into the remote region found giant chunks of coral and rocks in places where homes once stood and corpses dotting roads and beaches.

In a rare bright spot, an 18-month-old child was found alive Wednesday in a clump of trees on Pagai Selatan.

One of the hardest-hit areas, with 65 dead, was the village of Pro Rogat on Pagai Seatandug island.

Villagers there huddled under tarps in the rain, and they said many people who had fled to the hills were now too afraid to return home.

Officials say a multimillion-dollar tsunami warning system that uses buoys to detect sudden changes in water levels broke down a month ago because it was not being properly maintained. The system was installed after a 2004 quake and tsunami killed 230,000 in a dozen countries.

Joern Lauterjung, head of the German-Indonesia Tsunami Early Warning Project, disputed that there was a breakdown, saying Monday's 7.7-magnitude quake's epicenter was too close to the Mentawai Islands for residents to get the warning before the killer wave hit.

At the Mount Merapi volcano, hot clouds of ash spewed from the mountain about 4:30 p.m. Thursday, according to the Indonesian volcanology agency Subandriyo. It was unclear whether the new activity was a sign of another major blast to come.

Were the two events related?

The earthquake and the volcanic eruption that struck Indonesia lie on the same volatile fault line known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, but it was simply a coincidence that they occurred within a few hours of each other, experts say. Colin MacPherson of Durham University, an expert on volcanic activity in Java, said it was not feasible that the earthquake prompted the eruption.

He pointed out that Mount Merapi, 800 miles from the earthquake, is one of the world's most volatile volcanoes and has erupted several times over the past century, but never just after an earthquake. "There is no one-to-one correspondence between earthquakes and volcanic eruptions," he said.

Death toll from tsunami, volcano in Indonesia tops 400 10/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 29, 2010 12:28am]

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