x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Tsunami hits Indonesia, killing 108 with 500 missing

Tidal wave triggered by powerful earthquake hits remote Mentawai island chain, destroying villages in its path.

At least 108 people were killed and more than 500 were missing on Tuesday, after a tsunami triggered by a powerful earthquake hit a remote Indonesian island chain, destroying villages in its path.

The 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck in the Mentawai Islands area west of Sumatra late Monday, generating waves as high as three metres (10 feet) that swept away 10 villages, officials said.

One group of Australian tourists reported that their boat with 15 people aboard was destroyed by a "wall of white water" crashing into a bay after the undersea quake and said some had to cling to trees to survive.

"We felt a bit of a shake underneath the boat... then within several minutes we heard an almighty roar," said Rick Hallet, an Australian who operates a boat-chartering business in Sumatra.

"I immediately thought of a tsunami and looked out to sea and that's when we saw the wall of white water coming at us," he said.

Hendri Dori Satoko, a lawmaker in the Mentawai Islands, told MetroTV: "Our latest data from crisis centre showed that 108 people have been killed and 502 are still missing".

Disaster Management Agency spokesman Agolo Suparto added: "Ten villages have been swept away by the tsunami".

Indonesia sits on the Pacific "Ring of Fire" and the archipelago is frequently struck by powerful earthquakes, including one of 7.6 magnitude in September last year in Padang that killed about 1,100 people.

The 2004 Asian tsunami -- triggered by a 9.3-magnitude quake off Sumatra -- killed at least 168,000 people in Indonesia alone.

Health Ministry Crisis Centre head Mudjiharto said the Mentawai waves reached up to three metres high and waters swept as far as 600 metres inland on South Pagai island, the hardest hit.

"Eighty per cent of buildings in Muntei village have been damaged by the waves and many people are missing there," Mudjiharto said.

He said medical personnel were on their way to the worst-hit areas in helicopters but rescue efforts have been hampered by disruption to communications in the region.

There are no commercial flights to the island and travelling by ferry from Sumatra can take at least half a day.

Rescuers have also launched a search for a boat believed to be carrying a group of nine Australians and a Japanese national that has been missing since the quake.

"We are sending a boat and a chartered plane to search for the boat," said Andrew Judge of SurfAid International.

It was reportedly not equipped with a satellite telephone but SurfAid's Dave Jenkins said its Australian captain had "been around here for a long time". 

"He knew to contact in if he could. So that's why we're extra concerned."

The undersea quake hit at 9:42 pm (1442 GMT) at a depth of 20.6 kilometres, 280 kilometres south of Padang, the US Geological Survey said.

"A significant tsunami was generated by this earthquake," said the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre. The tsunami warning was later withdrawn after the danger of further waves had passed.

The first tremor was followed by strong magnitude 6.1 and 6.2 aftershocks several hours afterwards.

Hallet recounted his group's ordeal when the quake struck, with some climbing trees to survive.

"The bay we were in was several hundred metres across and the wall of white water was from one side to the other, it was quite scary," he told Fairfax Radio Network.

Another boat was anchored next to them, he said.

"The wave picked that boat up and brought it towards us and ran straight into us and our boat exploded, caught on fire, we had a fireball on the back deck and right through the saloon within seconds.

"I ordered everyone up to the top deck to get as high as possible, then the boat exploded and we had to abandon ship," he told Australia's Nine Network.

The group jumped into the water, some of them being swept 200 metres inland, and took shelter by climbing trees, waiting for 20 minutes to half an hour until the surges passed.

Eventually all the group were accounted for, he said.

Residents reported shaking as far away as the West Sumatran provincial capital of Padang when the main quake struck.